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When Swiss great Roger Federer was once asked about the essay that David Foster Wallace wrote about him, Federer said that he enjoyed reading it and it was beautiful and he loved David Foster Wallace’s writing. Or he said something like that. Roger Federer’s fans, many of whom were nerds, were ecstatic when they heard what he said. Among tennis players, a significant proportion of Federer’s fans seem to be nerds. When nerd fans heard Federer gushing about David Foster Wallace, they probably fantasized that Federer has read Wallace’s epic book ‘Infinite Jest’, and maybe he has read Jonathan Franzen and William Gaddis too. Being from Switzerland, he probably has thoughts on his fellow countryman Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s memoirs and his philosophy, and maybe he has one or two insights to share on Immanuel Kant’s and Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Something similar happened when the great Serena Williams read Maya Angelou’s famous poem, ‘Still I Rise’. (You can find the video here . It is beautiful and inspiring.) Serena’s fans were ecstatic. They fantasized that Serena has probably read the rest of Maya Angelou’s work including her famous memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Maybe Serena has also read the works of Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler and James Baldwin and she has one or two insights to share on the differences between Paul Laurence Dunbar’s and Langston Hughes’ poetry and the common themes in Jacqueline Woodson’s and Jesmyn Ward’s fiction.

Nerds have this fantasy about their favourite sportspersons – that their favourite sportsperson reads like them, and thinks deeply about intellectual issues like them, and has insights to offer on the finer points of philosophical debates. This is all just pure fantasy, of course. Successful sportspersons don’t have time to read, because reading demands long uninterrupted time. A successful sportsperson’s life is filled with training, keeping their fitness level up, playing matches and lots of travelling. When they are not doing these things, their lives are filled with interrupts, as they have to give interviews, make media appearances, satisfy their sponsors’ requests, go for ad shootings and other such things. There is no time for reading and deep contemplation. They probably have a nerd in their team who tells them in five minutes about David Foster Wallace or Maya Angelou and they probably work this into their conversations or any kind of public speaking they do. The logical part of our mind knows this, but the tennis-fan-plus-nerd part of our mind fantasizes that Federer or Serena or another favourite sportsperson is also a nerd and reads serious books and contemplates on the meaning of life and the fate of history. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. If Federer or Serena spent their time reading, they wouldn’t be legends in their sport. Their sport demands action and that is what they are great at and that is what they do everyday. Reading and contemplating is for mundane people like the rest of us, who have the uninterrupted time and the patience to indulge in it.

Like everything else in life, there are, of course, exceptions to this. For some reason, there used to be nerds in cricket. The English batsman, Chris Tavaré, after retiring from cricket, went back to high school to teach biology. It is hard to imagine something like this happening today, but it did then. Another English batsman, John Crawley, also went back to high school to teach, and became a headmaster. I am not sure which subject he taught.

Mike Brearley, the great English captain, became a psychologist and therapist after he retired from cricket. Brearley was one of those odd cricketers. He mainly played as a batsman throughout his career but he was not great at it. To put it mildly, he was below average. Someone like him should have never made it into an international team. Brearley himself jokes about it in one of his books – “Rodney Hogg recently raised this role with me on air, asking with apparent innocence, “Why did you give up wicket-keeping, Mike?” “I wasn’t very good at it,” I replied. “But you carried on batting?” he said. Point taken!” By a series of extremely unlikely circumstances, Mike Brearley, who was a below-par batsman, became the English team captain. And that is where he realized his potential. He was a great leader, he inspired his team, and led them to great heights. He was still a bad batsman, but he became one of the greatest captains that the cricketing world had ever seen. After he retired, the English team got a new, young captain. But then things started going badly for them. The selectors invited Brearley back into the team. He came back. His hair was prematurely grey, he couldn’t bat or bowl or field, he came low down in the batting order because he couldn’t buy a run, and he stood in the slips, because he didn’t have to run around and field the ball. But he inspired his team with his direction and leadership and his smart decisions on the field and his clear communication, that within a short span of a few weeks, they performed some amazing deeds and went back to being world beaters again. When Brearley retired a second time, he became a psychologist and a therapist. He also wrote a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy’ which is a nerd’s delight. These days Brearley continues coming out with the occasional book and they are unlike most other cricket books – they are intelligent, smart, have beautiful prose and are nerdy. Frequently, Brearley writes about sport and music and art and philosophy in the same breath. He is well read and well informed and clearly looks like the contemplative type – an oddball among sportspersons. He is the one sportsperson with whom you feel you can discuss Kant’s philosophy and Rembrandt’s art and Mozart’s music. Brearley cannot hold a candle to Federer as a sportsperson. But as a nerd, he is in a different league. If you are a Brearley fan and you dreamed that he was a nerd, you got exactly that.

Another nerd from cricket was Ed Smith. Smith was a reasonably successful county cricketer. He even got a couple of opportunities to play test cricket and he didn’t do badly, but he didn’t get picked for the English team again and ended up retiring as a county cricketer. But during his time as a county cricketer, he wrote a diary which he published called ‘On and Off the Field’. It was beautiful, intelligent, smart. It was almost like reading a Brearley book. He backed it up with more books including one comparing cricket and baseball. They were all wonderful, written by someone who was clearly a nerd. Ed Smith went on to become the Chairman of MCC, like Mike Brearley, and even served for sometime as the Chief Selector of the English team. It has been a while since he published his last book. Fans are expecting a new book from him anytime now.

In Indian cricketing circles, Rahul Dravid is regarded as a nerd, as someone who reads a lot and who contemplates on things. There was also an interesting incident which happened sometime back – Indian cricketer Mithali Raj was once caught reading a collection of Rumi’s poetry while she was waiting for her turn to bat in a World Cup match. There was a lot of buzz in social media at that time, as that picture went viral.

But even in cricket, nerds are rare. The above are exceptions.

In tennis, nerds are non-existent. Tennis players start playing by the time they are ten years old, and they continue playing till their middle thirties, that is for nearly twenty-five years. Many of them don’t finish high school, or probably they do homeschooling and most don’t go to college, because of the demands of the game. Tennis is a game of action and there is no time to be a nerd. Atleast that is what I thought. Till I discovered Mihaela Buzarnescu.

Mihaela Buzarnescu is a Romanian tennis player. She is around thirty three years old, so that means she has been around for a while. She is a left hander and she has the leftie’s natural elegance. Her game is so beautiful that I can sit and watch her serve and play her forehand for the whole day. She can also hit all the other beautiful shots, the drop shot and the lob and even the moonshot. She played Serena Williams in the recent French Open and took a set off Serena. There were many beautiful points in that match and at some point Mihaela and Serena were laughing at the way things were going. As luck would have it, Mihaela was drawn to play Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon. She gave a good account of herself and the match went into three sets, and Mihaela brought her beautiful all-round game to the court, and in my opinion, at one point she was in command of the match, but it was still not enough against a legend like Venus, and Venus’ power game prevailed in the end. Mihaela Buzarnescu’s beautiful game is good enough for one to become her fan. But that is not the only beautiful thing about her. There is more to her than meets the eye.

Mihaela Buzarnescu is ranked around 190 in tennis now. There is no connection between her beautiful, competitive game and her low ranking. I wondered why she was ranked so low. I discovered that she had been beset by frequent injuries in the past and sometimes those injuries led to long breaks from the game. But Mihaela was not one to be fazed by that. Once, when she was forced by injuries into one of her long breaks from the game, she told herself – “Okay, I’m going to do something fun. I’m not going to just sit and mope around. Let me go to university and study something. And while I’m at it, let me go all the way.” And she went and did that. When Roger Federer took a long break from tennis because of injury, he told himself – “I’ll get fit again, I’ll practise hard, I’ll get competitive, I want to play Wimbledon again.” And he did just that. When Mihaela Buzarnescu took a long break from tennis because of injury, she went to university and got herself a Ph.D degree. Yes, you are reading it right. She got herself a Ph.D. That is how she became a nerd. It is appropriate to call her Dr. Mihaela Buzarnescu now.

I don’t know any other tennis player who has a Ph.D degree. Forget tennis, I don’t know any sportsperson who has got a Ph.D degree. There are Indian universities which dole out Ph.D degrees to celebrities like candy. I’m not talking about that kind of Ph.D. I’m talking about the real academic kind in which you attend classes and study and build your expertise in a particular field and then research on a particular topic, extend the frontiers of your field, write a dissertation about it, and defend it in front of an evaluating committee – I’m talking about that kind of Ph.D. Mihaela Buzarnescu did exactly that. As a tennis nerd, Mihaela Buzarnescu hit the ball out of the park. I am a certified nerd, and even I don’t have a Ph.D. When I read about Mihaela’s Ph.D, I got goosebumps.

I don’t know how long Mihaela will continue playing tennis. She is thirty three now. And she looks pretty fit. I hope she continues playing for atleast a few more years. She has the game to reach the second week of a grand slam. I would like to see her play in the semifinals or the final of a grand slam one day. She will delight many other tennis fans with her beautiful aesthetic game as she has delighted me. She is waiting to be discovered by mainstream tennis fans. But I am more interested in finding out what she will do after she retires from tennis. Will she become the Fed cup team captain? Will she get into tennis administration? Will she coach kids to play tennis? Or will she nurture her nerdy side and become a professor at university? I hope all these are in the distant future, but I can’t wait to find out!

Mihaela Buzarnescu with the trophy after she won her first title

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Ever since ‘Centre Court‘ by Sriram Subramanian came out, I have wanted to read it. But the distractions of life and Wimbledon got in the way. Finally I put aside everything yesterday and read the book in one sitting. Here is what I think.

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Centre Court‘ tells the story of Shankar Mahadevan, who is a twenty five year old tennis player. Currently he is ranked 41 in the world. He is, at present, at Wimbledon on the eve of the championships. As his ranking is high enough, he gets a direct entry into the main draw. But as he is not seeded, life is unpredictable, as he could face a higher player in the first round and get knocked out. What happens next? Is he knocked out in the first round? Does he progress deep into the competition? I can’t tell you more about the story, because you should read the book and discover it yourself. 

Centre Court‘ is a rare bird, because it is a tennis novel. There are no tennis novels out there. I remember Monica Seles tried writing one which was supposed to be a part of a series aimed at young adult readers – a romantic novel series with a tennis backdrop. I don’t think it took off. The only kind of tennis books out there are ghosted biographies and table top books filled with beautiful photographs. There might be an occasional book about a famous match like the Federer – Nadal Final or the Borg – McEnroe final. Otherwise that shelf is really thin. Sport novels, in general, are very rare. I have read a couple of cricket novels, and loved them, but even in cricket, which is rich in literature, novels are rare. In tennis, novels are nonexistent. So ‘Centre Court‘ is unique. It breaks new ground. It is wonderful when a new literary experiment is attempted and it succeeds gloriously and we are there at close quarters to experience it. I loved that.

The second thing I loved about the book is this. ‘Centre Court‘ is a pure tennis novel. It has, of course, its share of drama, because sport is about drama after all. It has the inspiring story of an underdog we all love backing. It is about parents and children and family. It also has a whiff of romance. But, in the end, it is a tennis novel, a tennis novel of the finest kind. Does it mean that you need to know and understand tennis to follow the story and enjoy the drama? Not really. You can follow the story, enjoy the drama, emotionally invest in the main characters and go through an emotional rollercoaster with them, even if you are not a sports fan. But if you are a tennis fan, a tennis player or have been related to the game in any way, your experience will be richer. Because the book takes you on a tour of contemporary tennis history, talks about some of the great matches and players, tennis strategy and tactics, the politics in tennis, the administrators, and the evolution of equipment and technique. Sometimes it digresses into other sports like cricket and chess and draws parallels between them and tennis. It discusses many legendary sporting events in brief but sufficient detail. There is even a discussion on whether sport is art. So beautiful! When I saw that famous quote on being under pressure by my favourite Keith Miller, I couldn’t stop smiling! It was like the author took all the beautiful things about sport, put it in a novel and gift-wrapped it and presented it to his readers. All these beautiful things blend seamlessly with the story. How the author managed to do that, I have no idea.

If you are a tennis player or a passionate tennis fan, this book will embrace you, make you a part of the story and make you relive your own life. There is a description of the movie ‘Almost Famous‘ by music critic Tom Moon, which I love so much. It goes like this.

“There’s a scene in Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s semiautobiographical film about his unlikely rise as a teenage rock critic, that illustrates the kinetic thrill of discovering music. The Cameron character’s big sister has just left home, and he’s checking out her record collection – gazing meaningfully at Cream’s Wheel of Fire and Led Zeppelin II as though trying to decipher sacred texts. When he opens the gatefold of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, he finds a note : “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.”

He follows the instructions, drops the needle on the hi-fi, and hears those galvanizing guitar chords, a call-to-arms across generations. Even though maybe he’s ten years old, he promptly gets the glassy look in his eyes which says, “Please don’t disturb this cosmic moment.” With this one scene, which has no dialogue, Crowe makes manifest something music lovers know in their bones. That if you listen intently, you will encounter more than just constellations of cool sounds – that lurking within them is information worth having, perhaps even a signpost pointing you toward the next key step on your journey.”

If you are a tennis fan and you read this book, you will feel something like that, about your past. I did. The past just came back instantaneously and I could see my whole life as a tennis fan unfolding before my eyes – Becker, Edberg, Lendl, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Jana Novotna, Monica Seles, McEnroe, Connors – the film reel moved on and on with beautiful vivid images. It was like being in the middle of ‘Cinema Paradiso‘.

So, that’s it. Read this book. You will love it. If you are a tennis fan, you will love it more.

I have just one regret. I wish Nirmal Shekhar, who was one of India’s finest tennis correspondents, was still around. If he was, he would have read this book and written a poetic essay about it. It would have been beautiful.

Have you read ‘Centre Court‘? What do you think about it?

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