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Pliskova serving for the match with two match points,” chimed the two commentators together, as if they were singing a duet. Pliskova tossed the ball, and then caught it. There was an audible sigh throughout the stadium. Pliskova smiled like a nervous schoolgirl. One of the commentators, the great Martina, laughed gently. The other commentator said softly, “Deep breath, deep breath“, as if he was egging Pliskova on. Pliskova, of course, couldn’t hear all this. She was all alone in the middle of the court. She was serving for the match. On the opposite side of the net, her opponent nicknamed ‘The Tiger’ was waiting to pounce on her serve. There was pindrop silence. It was hard to believe that the stadium was full and there were thousands of people there. Pliskova tossed the ball again. Then she hit her serve. The ball soared into the opposite side of the court and zoomed past the Tiger at the speed of light. It was an ace. Pliskova raised her hands and then she smiled. This was a smile of happiness, of relief. The audience in the stadium stood up and gave her a standing ovation. I don’t think Pliskova has ever received such love from tennis fans before. Her husband screamed in their box with happiness. Her coach cried. I almost expected the other Pliskova, Kristyna, to be there, cheering her. It would have been fun to see one Pliskova in the court raising her arms and an identical Pliskova among the audience cheering.

Pliskova smiling nervously like a schoolgirl just before serving for the match
Pliskova raises her hands after serving an ace at matchpoint

Karolina Pliskova has been around for quite a while. She has been in the top 10 as long as I can remember. She has been one of the most consistent performers in the women’s circuit. She has also been one of the big hitters and she has regularly topped the aces count among women players at the end of the year. But she had never had much luck in grand slams. She reached one US Open final five years back, but outside of that, her grand slam record was quite patchy. It was odd, because she had a great serve, wonderful shots, a powerful game. It was strange that this was the first time she had gone past the fourth round at Wimbledon, because her serve alone was made for Wimbledon. As Pliskova continued playing consistently for a decade, she saw young upstarts coming out of nowhere going on to win a grand slam and then sliding back into obscurity. She must have wondered what it took to win a grand slam, and why these upstarts were doing it while she couldn’t, though she turned up everyday, played consistently, stayed in the top 10, and played the year end tournament every year. Maybe she thought of all this, when she was serving at matchpoint. But that is all in the past now. That serve soared over the net and it was one of the great moments of this year’s Wimbledon and now it is a part of history. Pliskova is on the other side now and today is a new day and it is a new match. Pliskova’s fans are getting a feeling that this time something is different, they are seeing a steely determination in Pliskova’s face and in her demeanor. Pliskova played the best match of her life to get past the game’s biggest powerhitter, Aryna Sabalenka, nicknamed ‘The Tiger’. Sabalenka didn’t play a bad match. She played a brilliant match. But it was not enough. Sabalenka will have her time under the sun. The Tiger will roar again. But this was Pliskova’s day.

Today evening, Pliskova plays the likeable Ash Barty, who is everyone’s darling, for the championship. The Wimbledon crowd is going to be on Barty’s side. I am not going to make any predictions, but my sentimental favourite is going to be Pliskova. I always love the underdog. If Pliskova gets her serve in, like she did in the semifinals, Barty is going to have a tough time. It is going to be a great match.

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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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