A matter of body over mind
By Nirmal Shekar
CHENNAI, AUG. 13. Finally, it was her body that sent the message, her body that helped her make up her mind. Ah, what a cruel irony, this! But, then, in the capricious business of sport, it is always thus - even when it comes to the greatest of 'em all.
And, to think that the complaining body belonged to one of the greatest athletes sport has known this century, and inarguably the greatest women's tennis has seen!
For some time now, Steffi Graf has been in two minds when it came to the question of retirement. After her historic French Open triumph, she seemed sure in her mind that it was her last visit to Paris and after her loss to Lindsay Davenport in the Wimbledon final, the great lady again seemed certain when she said she wouldn't be back at Wimbledon.
But, in the recent weeks, there were conflicting reports about what she really wanted to do - quit at the end of the season, or perhaps carry on into the new millennium.
On Friday, rather inappropriately on Friday the 13th, Graf's mind was finally made up, thanks to the signals sent out by the finest pair of legs the game has seen.
That's the curse that every sportsperson, the not-so- good, the good, the great and the greatest, have to live with. When the legs and the arms complain, they have to leave the centre stage.
A great painter doesn't have to give up his brush and his canvas on turning 30 or 40. A V.S. Naipaul can carry on writing marvellous prose well past what ordinary mortals come to think of as retirement age. A Ravi Shankar doesn't have to part with his sitar or the centre stage simply because he's turned 70.
But, in the world of sport, even the most extraordinary champions such as Graf have to bow sooner rather than later to Father Time. Even the most resilient of champions do not enjoy a career span of more than 15 years.
A pity, this. But, it goes with the territory, so to say. An athlete is an athlete - which, of course, means ultimately the body rules the mind.
Well, now that the great lady has quit, where does she stand in the pantheon of greats? Where does she rank in the company of such great players as Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles, not to speak of such legends of the pre-War days as Helen Wills Moody and Suzanne Lenglen?
If you went by statistics, Grand Slam statistics, only Margaret Court (24) has won more singles titles than Graf (22). But there is more to greatness than mere statistics. Of course, Court will have her supporters. So will Evert and Navratilova. In fact, for sheer natural ability, I believe Navratilova is possibly the greatest player of all time. And in terms of resilience and will power, Evert has no equals.
Then again, there are primarily two reasons why Graf will rank ahead of everybody else in my book. The first has to do with her consistency and success at the Slams. Following the Golden Grand Slam in 1988, when she swept the majors and also won the Olympic gold, Graf has won three of the four majors four times - in 1989, 1993, 1995 and 1996.
In 1988, if not for a brief illness during the final against a gutsy young Arantxa Sanchez- Vicario in the French Open final, Graf might well have won a second successive Grand Slam. And, in 1995 and 1996, if she had not been forced to skip the Australian Open, she would have certainly won all the four majors.
All-time great ????????????
But the more important reason for my choice of Graf as the greatest women's champion of all time has nothing to with the number of titles she's won or the number of weeks she's been No. 1.
What has appealed to me most about the great German is her ability to shut out everything else when she goes out on court. For someone who has seen more ups and downs in her private life than most great champions, Graf achieved what she did simply because of her extraordinary ability to concentrate on her tennis to the exclusion of everything else when she was on a court in a major championship.
All great champions have the ability to concentrate, some more than others. But Graf was one step above almost everybody else in her generation. There was an almost other- worldly intensity to her concentration on the court. At the best of times, one could get an idea of Friedrich Nietzsche's ``Pure will without the troubles of intellect'' when Graf played.
What Graf came up with when everything went well for her on the court was the very definition of pure joy, or ultimate freedom. Supreme happiness and unqualified freedom are not things that lead on to something else. They are their own meaning. They exist by themselves, of themselves, independent of anything else.
And Graf's tennis, at her best, had nothing to do with the scoreline that it caused or the titles that it led the author to. It would seem to be a sacrilege to say that they were connected.
Did Van Gogh wonder how valuable posterity would deem his masterpieces when he painted his classic pieces? How ridiculous to even so much as wonder that he might have done that! If, as Johannes Brahms said, ``A symphony is no joke,'' then it would be a joke to imagine that the author of a great symphony was motivated by the applause that his composition might get.
What Graf did on the tennis court time and again was to strive for her own athletic nirvana. That is what she risked everything - her suspect back, her knees, her misbehaving ankles - for. That is the only condition of life that she ever aspired to - a moment when she could play the kind of tennis that is a perfect expression of the language of her soul.
When a player achieves such an exalted condition, she soars above not only the ordinary but event the great ones. This is why Graf is ahead of Court, Navratilova, Evert and every other woman who ever unsheathed a racquet.
There are times when sport transcends itself, moments when it aspires to a condition that is mostly beyond its reach even in the best of times. In such a state, in such moments, sport sheds its familiar skin, rashes and all, and becomes something that it seldom is - a kind of super- sport.
It is during these exalted moments that sport takes on the heavenly glow of the great arts - of music, dance, painting and writing - and the athlete who authors those moments of transcendental brilliance experiences the kind of fullness of life, of superabundance of life, that a Nijinsky or a Mozart would have felt during great moments of creative intensity.
In the last 15 years, in the sports arena, a place where it is a great privilege simply to be able to tune into a super-athlete's private wavelength when he or she takes on wings and carries sport beyond its defined boundaries, few have achieved the ``exalted condition'' as often as Steffi Graf.
Those of us who have seen her from the time she was an up-and- coming pimply-faced adolescent know, for sure, that we'll never see anyone quite like her again.
Yes, the greatest is gone.