Nirmal Shekar

Nadal and the art of attention

The lovable Rita Baptista, more Anglo than Indian despite her evenly mixed blood, was a woman of indeterminable age but determinable iciness. She was auburn-haired, light-eyed, with a voice that was a curious mix of female shrillness and male baritone — the former came naturally, the latter was an add-on, or value addition, by her own estimation.

What I recall more than anything else about my formidable class teacher in the early 1960s though, are these few oft-repeated words: “Will you kindly pay attention, please.” It was an admonition rather than a plea.

But even a strict new millenarian version of my dear, departed teacher would struggle to achieve anything close to what Ms. Baptista accomplished more than 50 years ago in a primary school.

Ah, paying attention! What a simple thing, you might think. But it is, in fact, a difficult practice, a seriously endangered process of cultural learning in an age when your senses are bombarded all the time by all kinds of distractions.

In the event, it was with an anguished sense of nostalgia that I remembered my teacher’s words from another age, on Friday.

Watching Rafael Nadal pay attention to the moment, especially when it happens to be a passage of play charged with meaning, is like watching a great scientist — perhaps on the verge of a Nobel-deserving discovery — pace his laboratory, solitary and single-minded.

Living in the now, being present all the time — these are not just quasi-philosophical clichés that have turned many life coaches, especially of Asian origin, into celebrity multi-millionaires in Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

While the great Albert Einstein himself wrestled with the concept of ‘now,’ psychologists have indeed proved — of course, without recourse to the supernatural — through peer-reviewed experiments that those of us who travel without the excess baggage of the past and the future, end up enjoying the journey a lot more than the others, and are often more successful.

The late David Foster Wallace, the American novelist and essayist, wrote one of the most memorable pieces I have ever read on a tennis player, a New York Times magazine essay titled ‘Federer as a religious experience.’

Those who were fortunate enough to have watched Nadal overcome Djokovic in the fifth set at Roland Garros in the semifinals of the French Open, might have experienced a bit of what Wallace did a few years ago at Wimbledon.

Down 4-3 and deuce, Nadal responded to the mighty Serb’s challenge with typical emotional intensity, functioning in a Zen master’s vacuum. Navigating masterfully around his own shortcomings, of which there aren’t too many, the great Spaniard found a way out of the abyss.

Courage, valour, common sense, patience and, most of all the willingness to bleed to his bones…Nadal showcased all the old-world virtues of the sporting arena as he conquered the No.1 player in the game.

Surely, thoughts such as ‘Oh, God, this is a life-or-death point,’ or questions such as ‘Am I as good as I was,’ would have crossed Nadal’s mind. But he just chose to shut them out like a busy housewife would an uninvited door-to-door salesman.

From time to time, as a career sports writer, you are asked who you’d choose if you wanted someone to play for your life. Over four decades, I have often considered names like Bjorn Bjorg, Steve Waugh and Rahul Dravid. But I guess, finally, I have to settle for Nadal.

To do what he is doing in the age in which he is doing it, is incredible. Cyber-invasion has shortened our attention spans as never before and many of us may be suffering from attention deficit disorder to some degree.

This is precisely why patience, perseverance and deep reflection are at a premium. And so are the rewards that come with them — the joy that fills you after a whole day of reading and re-reading The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky) or Albert Camus’ L’Etranger .

More than just patience

But then, in a sports arena, it takes more than just patience. What it calls for is a willingness to suspend time itself, indefinitely — rewind, deuce, game eight, Friday’s semifinal.

A few years ago, persuaded by a dear friend, I reluctantly spent an evening at one of Chennai’s sabhas , taking in a Carnatic classical music concert. Through two memorable hours, I witnessed an old lady — seated to my left — go through a whole gamut of emotions.

Not for the first time in my life, I felt that I was a culturally-challenged dim-wit. But I instantly knew what ‘being in the moment’ was all about.

But it is one thing to be ‘in the moment’ as a member of the audience, and quite another to do it on stage as a performer, especially when pushed to the wall — as Nadal was on Friday.

We honour the artists/players when we pay full attention; in turn, they honour their calling. And it is a win-all situation.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2022 4:09:58 pm |