Saturdays with Shekar: Episode 2

Listen to The Hindu's Sports Editor Nirmal Shekar speak to our Sports-Writer Arun Venugopal on the World Cup and Wimbledon. Reach out to us @thehindusports and #SaturdaysWithShekar. Editing: Lavanya Prabhakaran

Arun Venugopal: Hello and welcome to the second episode of Saturdays With Shekar. This is Arun Venugopal and with me is a very happy-looking Nirmal Shekar, the Sports Editor of The Hindu. As always, fantastic having you on the show, Shekar.

Nirmal Shekar: Thank you very much. I am happy to be here myself.

AV: Now, the reason for Shekar’s happiness is because today we are going to be chatting about two of his favourite sporting events – the World Cup and the Wimbledon. Shekar, what according to you makes these two competitions so special?

NS: The World Cup obviously is special because no sporting event in the world unites the entire world like the World Cup does. The number of countries that play football and the number of people that watch the World Cup… there’s nothing quite like it in sport. It’s bigger than even the Olympics.

As for Wimbledon, there’s no sporting event – not just in tennis [but] in any sport – that combines tradition and modernity quite as well as Wimbledon does. It has the best of the past and it blends it with the best of the present while looking ahead to the future as well.

AV: More on the Wimbledon later but let’s begin with the big talking point of the moment – Neymar’s injury last night. A broken vertebra has ruled him out of the World Cup. And, with captain [Thiago] Silva also being suspended for the semifinal against Germany – a very tough opponent indeed -- have Brazil’s title hopes effectively ended, Shekar?

NS: I don’t think Brazil’s title hopes have ended. It’s happened to great players before, for instance, in 1962, after playing very well in 1958 as a 17-year-old, Pele was injured in the Chile World Cup. But still, Brazil went on to win.

I think Brazil has the bench-strength to compensate a little bit for Neymar, but nobody can actually replace Neymar. Neymar is Neymar. It is a big loss and Brazil has to be at its very best to match Germany or even beat Germany.

AV: Now, Here’s a question on a subject that has dominated discussion throughout this World Cup. In fact, you have written a column [on this] yourself Karthik Shankar on Facebook has this for you: How do we curb diving in Football? Is equippingreferees to deal with the problem the only solution? Or should the morals of playing it right be inculcated? Or are their other methods to solve the issue?

NS: With so much at stake, I don’t think we can start moralising about what happens on the field. I think effective measures have to be put in place. The referees have to be very strict and FIFA has to think of ways in which they can penalise players who dive. That’s the only way to stop it.

AV: Here’s another question that we have from Rajesh Jayaram, on Facebook: Who's your pick to win Brasil 2014? And, which country do you think has been the greatest in the history of World Cup football?

NS: One question is very obvious. Brazil is obviously the greatest that’s ever been in the history of World Cup football. And, Germany comes close. Then, there is Argentina, there’s Italy.

But, I think Brazil stand out not only because they have won five times but because of the quality of football they have played, the brand of football they have put on show in the World Cup. As for my pick in this World Cup, it’s very tough. With Neymar injured, the equations are a little bit different from what they might have been otherwise. But my pick is Germany versus Argentina, and it’s a 50-50 up there, but I would give Argentina a bit of an edge.

AV: Another listener-question, this time from Jyotsna Raman on Facebook:

Is club football slowly gaining more importance than the World Cup? (Or has it always been like that?) Suarez exited with disgrace but bagged a contract from Barcelona. Rooney and his teammates went out with a whimper but their focus has immediately turned to the next Premier League season. Doesn't this reflect badly on the importance given to one's national team?

NS: It does. I have always been a professional who has believed that World Cup football is so special that there must be time before the World Cup for players to prepare. Which means there must be a month without club football before the World Cup, and a little bit of time after the World Cup as well.

But then, club football being as big as what it is today, people are looking at not just the one month of the World Cup. But I don’t think club football will ever replace World Cup in terms of popularity.

AV: Alright. Let’s now talk about today’s quarterfinal clashes. Shekar, your two cents and predictions on the Argentina-Belgium game as also the Costa-Rica-Netherlands one?

NS: I think both are going to be tough games, but I think Argentina has the edge in the first game, and then I would pick Netherlands in the second game. I am looking at an Argentina-Netherlands semifinal.

AV: With respect to the obvious Messi-Maradona comparisons, there’s always been a gripe against Messi that he hasn’t done as well for Argentina as he has done for Barcelona. Do you think he has finally laid those ghosts to rest with this World Cup?

NS: He certainly has so far but now comes the real test with the quarterfinal, semifinal, and perhaps the final if they get that far. So far he has done very well for his team and Argentina has virtually been carried by Messi but like I said, it is a big test now and I think he’ll pass it.

AV: Moving on from tackles and headers to a more genteel world of serves and volleys. It’s Wimbledon time and a certain Roger Federer clearly doesn’t think that 17 Grand Slam titles are enough. How do you explain the Federer phenomenon, Shekar?

NS: I cannot even begin to explain the Federer phenomenon. I have watched Federer from the time he won junior Wimbledon. It’s been a long voyage both for Federer and for me as a journalist and as someone who loves tennis. Nobody quite like Federer in modern tennis or even in any sport for that matter.

I would like to look back and see how many people have won a Grand Slam title after being a father of four, you know. That will be a very, very special statistic for somebody to dig up (laughs). But Federer is Federer and it’s going to be a very, very special match tomorrow.

AV: Federer doing what he’s doing right now, do you think it’s just a last hurrah or does he actually want to play on a little longer? How do you explain the mindset of sportsmen who have done so much and achieved a lot, but at an age where their prime is behind them, what’s the mindset like?

NS: I think it depends on the player’s level of motivation. It’s amazing how motivated Federer is even today after winning as many titles as he has won. I think he still has a few Grand Slams left in him, and he’s as fit as any other player five or six years younger than him. Federer still has at least two or three years left in him.

AV: What of the other big issue threatening to take the attention off the main contests in the Wimbledon, at least in India. The Maria Sharapova-Tendulkar controversy. Frankly, are you amused or shocked by this, Shekar?

NS: I am amused. Given what people can get up to on social media I am not shocked at all. But I am pretty amused and I have written a column in The Hindu. I would like people who have not read it to read that column. This is a very, very silly issue. It doesn’t need the coverage that it’s so far got in the media.

AV: Time for a listener question again. Jyotsna, this time, on Facebook:

What is your opinion the unequal prize money for women at some tennis grand slams? Do you agree with the argument that for equal pay, women also have to play five-setters?

NS: Not at all. I don’t think women have to play five-setters to get equal prize money. I think they do deserve equal prize money and a lot of people in tennis administration are aware that at some point, every tennis tournament will need to have equal prize money for men and women.

AV: Here’s another question from Praveen. Praveen wants you to recount your top three Wimbledon matches.

NS: That’s very tough, top three Wimbledon matches if you pick. I think I’ll just look at the finals, because I’ve watched more than 35 Wimbledon finals and covered 26 of them. I’d look back to the Pat(rick) Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic (2001 Wimbledon) final, which was played on a Monday after the previous day was washed out, and Goran won it in five-sets in a thriller. I’ll also look at the Nadal-Federer five-set finals.

But to me, the one that was not close but still very special was the one in which Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi in 1999 because of the sheer quality of tennis that Sampras played. I don’t think even Federer has matched that kind of quality over a period of time.

AV: It’s time to put you in a spot, Shekar. Prediction time now. Federer and Djokovic in the men’s finals, and Bouchard and Kvitova in the women’s finals…

NS: Let me first look at the women’s finals. I think Kvitova has experience on her side, but I’ll pick Bouchard on form. That kid is very hungry, and she has it in her to do it. As for tomorrow’s (men’s) finals, it’s 50:50. Federer has experience on his side and has been there many, many times before, and he’s not going to be as nervous as Djokovic, but I think it’s 50:50. I’d give Federer a slight edge tomorrow, although Djokovic has age on his side.

AV: There you have it. Shekar calling it as he sees it. I’m afraid that’s all we have time for on today’s show. Do continue to listen in on our show ‘Saturdays With Shekar’. Do send us your feedback and do follow The Hindu Sports on Twitter and Facebook. Until next time, this is Arun Venugopal signing off. Have a great weekend, folks. Bye bye….

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