Goodbye Nirmal

February 2, 2017 Leave a comment

On the 29th of last month (Jan 2017) the Swiss tennis super star Roger Federer clinched his 18th Grand slam title in Melbourne, Australia.  In an epic 5 set battle at the Rod Laver Arena that lasted for more than five hours, he routed his long time nemesis, the Spaniard Rafael Nadal.  I could not watch the final.  I had to content myself with online commentary.

Federer is arguably the best tennis player of our time. His grace and skill on and off the court have no parallel.  However, due to injury, he had been out of action for the past eight months.  Playing in his mid thirties, Federer came to Melbourne Park as a 17th seed, and obituaries of a great sporting career were being prepared.  He silenced them all with his magical racket.

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Image Courtesy : marketwatch.com/gettyimages

Of course, during the numerous past tournaments he could not beat the other big guns of the business – the likes of Djokovic or Roddick.  Perhaps this was why, when he reached the Australian open this year, it was so electrifying, not just for me, but for every single tennis fan on this planet. Federer’s charisma is universal.

I was curious to see what Nirmal Shekar of TheHindu would write about Roger Federer’s 18th grand slam win.  Nirmal, a widely respected career journalist, had been reporting tennis for quite a long time. After each of Federer’s wins in the grand slam tournaments, he would write elegant prose, often bordering on eulogy, evoking within the reader the true spirit and soul of the game. He was an unapologetic fan of Roger Federer. Yet, he wrote as gracefully when Federer lost as well. Laced with poetry and lavish philosophy his writing  were a pleasure to ponder upon.

I always looked forward to reading ‘No Boundaries,’ his occasional column in TheHindu.

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Image Courtesy : thehindu.com

On 29th Jan, 2017, the Australian Open final was over by 17:00 hours Indian time. Roger was crowned. I felt elated.  I was also much relieved.  There was enough time for Nirmal to write.  I eagerly awaited the next day’s TheHindu.

The following morning, the newspaper boy, for some reason, failed to show up with my copy.   Quite impatiently, I bought one from a vendor outside. To my disbelief, Nirmal’s column was missing. I checked online. Again it was a disappointment. Someone else reported from Melbourne. I could not digest it.   

Nirmal must be busy, I reassured myself. I was certain that he would write soon. This is no ordinary occasion.  Roger got his 18th.  The whole tennis world is celebrating. How can the man not share his delight on this super blissful event? For the next two days I waited earnestly.  I unfolded the newspaper from the penultimate page – the sports section.  But ‘No Boundaries’ was no where to be found.

Yesterday, Indian Finance minister presented the government’s Annual Budget in Parliament.  As expected, today’s newspaper (Feb. 2nd) was heavily loaded with various Budget analyses. I started reading and did not pay much attention to the sports page.  After an hour’s read I eventually turned over to the sports section.   I spotted that familiar smiling face – aha, Nirmal’s back.

But he was not in his usual column.  The heading completely shattered me – “Nirmal Shekar passes away!” I was dumbstruck.
For a moment, I could not believe it – what? our Nirmal, no more?!    
th01_nirmal_1976361g-1I grew up reading Nirmal Sekhar, Rohit Brijnath, Mike Marqusee and Peter Roebuck reporting for TheHindu.  They elevated sports writing above the noisy numbers and gaudy jargons.  Reporting was closer to life.  In fact, in their prose, life itself imitated sports in multiple ways.  They brought in rare insights to journalism with their multidisciplinary knowledge, enormous creativity and passion for sport.  Nirmal was arguably the titan of that tribe.  And yesterday night, without the slightest hint, he has put his pen down.  He was only 60. What an irreparable loss!

Nirmal Shekar, the editor, added a pinch of wisdom to sports writing.  This set him apart. Throughout his journalistic career Nirmal had his favourites.  Be it (Muhammad) Ali or (Don) Bradman, (Tiger) Woods or (Michael) Schumacher – he watched the superstars in action from the ring side.  He put their theatrics on paper, gave words and recorded them for eternity.  In a way, he too chiseled, with his pen, the mold of stardom of those players.  At times, his readers discovered a truer elegance in Federer’s forehand return or Sachin’s cover drive in Nirmal’s outstanding narrative.

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Nirmal Sekar with former Indian tennis player Ramanathan Krishnan – Photo Courtesy: thehindu.com

Any master sporting feat leaves blank spaces worth elucidating.  Nirmal Shekar’s graceful words aptly fill them in.  They align the aesthetics of sporting endeavours with the readers’ sense of beauty.  That by itself is an art. It enriches our sensibilities.  In that sense,  TheHindu and its readers have lost a great artist.    

His column always had a philosophical undertone of literary prose, lining on the lyrical. He made us believe that journalism is pure literature.

In 2014 March, thus wrote Nirmal:
(I shall reproduce the text in toto)

‘What time is it, Roger?’

COMING as he does from a country of legendary watchmakers — Switzerland — you might have thought that Roger Federer would be acutely aware of the passing of time.

After 17 Grand Slam titles and a clutch of other records — ones that might never be broken in decades to come — nobody would have been shocked if the great master had settled into a routine of dropping off his twin daughters, Myla and Charlene, at school and opted for an easy chair and newspaper crossword puzzles, while eagerly awaiting the arrival of another set of twins later this year.

Instead, Federer has started 2014 apparently hell-bent on conquering some super-Himalayan peak that nobody on Planet Tennis knew existed.

To be certain, none of us can still be sure that it does exist — which, of course, does not mean that its pursuit by the Swiss genius is likely to turn out to be a Don Quixote-and-the-windmill affair.  

As they glide into their routine effortlessly, the greatest of athletes freeze time itself. They fool you into believing that all the summers they have left behind do not really count, as they would for us ordinary mortals.

“When you lose, the journey is endless.  When you win, time just flies.” This was the text sent by Robert Federer to his 32-year-old son after the Dubai Open recently.

But then, Roger, who proudly tweeted that reassuring message, has always given you the impression that ruthless Father Time has never, ever, left a mark on him, whether it flies or crawls.

And the arrival of the genial Swede, Stefan Edberg, as his coach at the start of year, as well as Federer’s decision to switch to a racquet with a bigger sweet spot, appeared to give the great man the chance to regain his sublime self-confidence and mock at time’s tentacles.

But who does he have within sight to emulate? What is the target that you aim at when you have done everything there is to be done? What remains after the tallest of peaks has been conquered?

Ah, well, these are meaningless questions when addressed to a man who finds rich, ever-more-life-enhancing meaning in every moment that he spends on the court, even if he is someone for whom the burden of proof is past.

Against Andy Murray at the Australian Open in Melbourne, against Novak Djokovic  in Dubai, and against the veteran German Tommy Haas at Indian Wells on  March 12, Federer displayed the hunger of a gifted teenager in quest of  his first Tour title.

Ultimate beyonder

The US psychologist Ellis Paul Torrance has talked about high achievers as men and women who “fall in love with a dream” and then go after it with  evangelistic zeal. He calls these special members of our species “beyonders”.

Surely, modern sport — not just men’s tennis — has not seen a ‘beyonder’ beyond Federer. He is the ultimate example of this small band of outliers.

Right  through 2013, a year in which Federer won a solitary tour title and  twice lost before the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event — which is  roughly the equivalent of Sachin Tendulkar failing to get past 10 four  times in a row in a Test match at Chepauk — the Swiss maestro had got  used to facing unforgiving microphones.

On the other side (of the microphone), were men and women who were almost certain that an era had come to an end. Federer’s retirement no longer seemed to be a question; instead it looked like it would turn out to be a happy answer to all his woes on court.

Hampered by a back  injury through half the season, Federer lost in the second round at  Wimbledon, a championship that he has won seven times, and then, two  months later, was dumped out of the US Open in the fourth round.

His 45-17 season record was his worst since anyone might care to remember and Federer dropped from No.2 at the start of 2013 to No.8 currently.  Who, then, would have bet on a Roger Resurgence at the start of the year?

If you counted out his diehard fans — and you  might need to do a lot of counting to get that figure right — there was  only one person who did believe that Federer could more than drop hints  of a comeback: the great man himself.

Right from the time he stepped on the court for his first match this year, at Brisbane, Federer has suggested that he has regained the aggressiveness and confidence of his pomp and rediscovered the intensity that saw him embrace unsurpassed greatness in the first decade of the new millennium.

Yet, the point is not merely that he looks like a contender again; it is that he does so while still offering us the unique peak emotional (aesthetic) experience that Bernard Shaw called “Mozartian joy”.

Either time’s passage is an illusion or the Roger Federer Effect is a mirage. Given the laws of nature, both cannot be true at the same time.

Yes, that super Himalayan peak, as Nirmal prophesised, did exist. And Roger scaled it, in style.
The grandest tennis party on this planet is on.
How can you suddenly become silent and walk away from it, dear Nirmal?

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