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Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Great Scot! Murray Wins A Slam!

I love sport! What a brilliant summer of sport this has been! We’ve had the incredible Olympics, an outstanding test series for the number one rank between England and South Africa, the arrival of golf’s newest sensation in Rory McIlroy, the best and closest Formula1 season in as long as I can remember, a thrilling start to the new football season and finally, the belated coronation of a new champion in Tennis! My god Andy Murray is a Grand Slam champion! Bloody hell the British finally have a Grand Slam champion after 76 years!! All this means that the Mayans were right all along, the world is coming to an end!!

This championship for Murray is long overdue and historic. Historic not only because it ended such a humongous and monstrous title drought for a nation, but because his career will now be looked at differently. I think we can all agree that sport is as much a test of mental fortitude as it is physical ability and talent. Think of the number of elite athletes who fall short on the biggest of stages because they lack mental strength. Asafa Powell, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie, Tony Romo, Rubens Barichello, The Arsenal Football team from 2006-2011 (Sighhhhhh…..), The South African Cricket team. This list can go on and on and on. For a while, Murray was precariously close to getting sucked into that list. The only person on this list with a major title is Greg Norman. But he was a notorious choker and for Murray to get permanently off such a list, he will have to win a few more.

For a long time, every Tennis fan wondered if Murray could ever do it. I am a big Murray fan and have watched his matches closely. When he lost his first Grand Slam final in straight sets at the 2008 US Open to The Greatest Player Ever Roger Federer, it was understandable. Two years later, when he again lost in straight sets at the Australian Open to Federer, it was also understandable.

But troubling signs began to show up. Like how he always played extremely passively on the biggest of stages and on the biggest of points. How his body language belied a man who genuinely knew he belonged at this stage and could win. Another straight sets loss at the Australian Open, this time to Novak Djokovic, was also not all that surprising, because you know, Djokovic was in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in tennis. Then he lost this year in four sets at Wimbledon to Federer, who kind of owns Wimbledon and played with a chip on his shoulder because he hadn’t won a Grand Slam title in two years. We thought it was never going to happen for poor old Murray. He was not aggressive enough, he was too mentally fragile to cope with the big occasion, he was born in the wrong era and he was British and cursed! These were all the reasons given for him falling short.

But a few weeks later he seemed to find something inside him. Some “mongrel”, some killer instinct, and most importantly, some confidence. Confidence that he belonged on this stage and that he could win against these players. Watching him win the gold medal so emphatically at the Olympics against Federer, you couldn't help but wonder if this new feeling could carry him to an unprecedented place.

                                                            The Great Scot!

It did. Spectacularly! Somehow Murray mustered all the guts, energy, passion, and confidence to beat Djokovic in an epic five setter. It would have been very easy for him to recede back into his passive shell after losing a two set lead. But he bounced back immediately and broke Djokovic at the start of the fifth set. The confidence was back. The swagger and passion were high, and you just knew, Murray was not letting this one slip.

I think Murray has more Grand Slams left in him. He has now put his name among the greatest players in the game. Comparing tennis players is tricky and I am not going to bother. For instance, is Gustavo Kuerten, who won three French Opens but never did better than a Quarter Final elsewhere, really better than Murray? Doesn’t the fact that Murray is a better all court player, been to five different Grand Slam finals count for something? Murray is also undeniably playing in the greatest era of Men’s tennis. Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are legends. Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Thomas Berdych and David Ferrer could easily be Grand Slam champions. Murray came through, and rose above them all to triumph.

I will always remember Murray as one of the best players I have seen. Someone who after years and years of hurt finally came through in the most difficult era of tennis. They say winning the first is the hardest, so maybe now he will start to play with a little more freedom and charisma. We can sit and wonder how many more titles he can win, but that can wait. For now let us just enjoy and celebrate a brilliant player.

Come on Andy!!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Super Premier League

This was a very weird and strange summer, very different since the last 9 years. The premier league, my favorite sports league involving my favorite sports team Arsenal, snuck up on me! Usually I am doing everything short of sitting around with a calendar and marking days off to welcome in a brand new season. I scour remote sources on the internet for Arsenal related articles, I refresh the Arsenal website (which BTW is my homepage) hoping for some breaking news, I sit watching Arsenal related videos on YouTube all in anticipation of the upcoming season. This season however, things were different. I read maybe a handful of Arsenal related articles a day and never sat around watching any videos. I guess you can blame those brilliant Olympics for briefly brushing Arsenal under the carpet!

But of course that was only temporary. The premier league is BACK!! Football is BACK!!

Shockingly, and hilariously, it seems like Man City are short a couple of players! Five goals conceded in three games against a newly promoted team, QPR, and a Liverpool team that has all of ZERO natural goal scorers is pretty poor. But the oil in the Middle East is not drying up any time soon and they will probably splurge more money. Man United will be fine like they always annoyingly are. (As an Arsenal fan that sentence was painfully hard to write). Personally, I think Rooney’s injury is a blessing in disguise. Overall I think he is a better player than Van Persie, but if it’s a straight choice between the two of them right now, Van Persie is slightly the better player, and has been for the last year. Much like the “noisy neighbors” however, their defense looks shaky. Ferdinand is very injury prone, Vidic is just returning from a season long injury and Evra is washed up. But somehow, they will be fine and end up having a good season.

On a side note, as an Arsenal fan it is absolutely gut wrenchingly hurtful to watch Van (Purse)y in the red of United, and do so well. It is obvious watching Arsenal that Podolski was bought with the intention of playing alongside RVP, and Giroud as a replacement for RVP. Watching Giroud struggle so mightily in the last 3 games and RVP thrive really makes my blood boil! Imagine Cazorla, Arteta, Patrick Yaya Diaby (Don’t laugh! He really was that good vs Liverpool!), Podolski, Walcott and RVP all playing together! (Looooong sigh…)

It’s still fun to laugh at Liverpool. As I write this, they are even talking about bringing Michael Owen back! I will confess though, I love watching Suarez play. He is an annoying prick who is always agitating and looking agitated, but he is full of deception (I am not talking about his diving!), trickery and has brilliant feet. Watching him play you always get the feeling he is trying his hardest, unlike say a Mr. Andrey Arshavin.

                                                  You really want him back?

Keeping my Arsenal bias aside and looking at it purely as a football fan, it is brilliant to see Everton doing well. There’s something charming about a small club showing immense loyalty, financial prudence and principals doing well. They are a collection of unglamorous players who every week bust their gut and just play football. No drama and no frills. If they can keep a hold of their players, who knows where they can finish?

Chelsea are the most intriguing to me. Prior to the season starting, I thought finishing fourth will be an achievement for them. But hell they have started the season on fire! They usually do, so I probably shouldn’t get carried away, but watching their games, they look like a group of players with great chemistry who like playing with each other and know their roles to perfection. Most importantly they seem to know how to win! And Torres looks good, which means he will probably get injured in the next month!

All in all, the premier league in the 3 weeks so far has churned out its usual dose of talent, flair, fast pace action, relentless passion, contrasting styles, heartbreak (Southampton against both Manchester clubs) and exhilarating excitement. 

Here’s to 8 more months of this brilliance!

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Let's Talk Olympics!

Well it’s been way too long since my last blog post! Work and a whole lot of other things in between meant I did not have enough time. So let’s try and re-launch this blog again after a setback. You know, a bit like Andy Murray trying to re-launch his career with a gold medal after a few setbacks. That’s right; we are talking about the Games of the 30th Olympiad!  

Being that I am only 22, I have only ever watched three Olympic Games fully - Athens, Beijing and now, London. And these London games by far have been the most exciting and enthralling of the lot. What a truly grand spectacle of sport they have been! I never knew the day would come when I would say I just spent one hour of my life watching something called Dressage and genuinely enjoyed it! Read that sentence again to allow it sink in. Dressage!? DRESSAGE?! And that to me is the beauty of the Olympics. Watching sports you otherwise would never get a chance to watch and then thoroughly enjoying it for the same reason you enjoy “normal” sports – regular people showcasing their breathtaking talent and skills, watching all their passion and hard work play out in front of you and a million others, and stretching themselves to perform at “superhuman” levels. 

                                                   I present to you Dressage!

I have never before been bothered about how coordinated two men jumping from a 10m platform were (Synchronized diving), or how well a lady waved a foot in the face of another (Taekwondo). Or how hard a lady punched another in the ribs (Boxing), or how fast someone can canoe downstream through raging rapids (Canoe Slalom). Or for that matter I never really cared about fencing, table tennis, judo, sailing and probably a couple more sports. But now after watching these brilliant Olympics? Well… (Thinking)…OK I still will not actively seek out these sports, but if it is on TV, I guarantee I will not flip channels as rapidly as I used to! 

I expected to be thrilled by Bolt, Blake, Phelps, Jessica Ennis (she is gorgeous!), Bradley Wiggins, Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Federer and Murray, the athletics in general, swimming, track cycling and the US basketball team. I trusted and knew that these athletes would delight by their utter genius. (Yes I just included Saina Nehwal in the same sentence with Bolt and Federer along with the words “utter genius”. That is the partisan Indian in me, sorry!) But I never expected to find that the moments I will remember would be so varied and wondrous! That would be my personal legacy of London2012, the way in which my eyes and mind were opened up to so many other remarkable sports and their supremely talented athletes.

The Olympics had its downside, no doubt about it. Swimming has way too many events and medals to keep track of, synchronized swimming with the cheap glittery outfits was weird, and team sports like hockey and football were a bit of a letdown. But it feels a bit churlish to be focusing on this. What I will really take away from these two weeks is how inspiring it all was. The Olympics was a parade of people trying their utmost, straining their sinews, testing their minds, and in the case of two Arabic women, the symbolic gesture of simply being there and crossing a finishing line, even if it was after the next race had commenced. It was inspiring.

I will never forget the night of the 200m men’s final. With the final on Friday early hours India time (a working day), I was tired and made the mistake of thinking I would just record it and watch it the next day. But then I thought about watching Bolt streak down the track past all his rivals, in his own inimitable cocky style, as if he were in a race against himself and the clock, and realized there was no way I am missing the opportunity to watch one of the greatest athletes ever. Just the mere thought of what greatness might happen was the adrenalin I needed to bounce back out of bed and sit glued in front of my TV. No surprise, Bolt waltzed through the finish line. I was inspired.

                                                          The Greatest!

And even if all of us cannot even begin to imagine swinging on a bar like Epke Zonderland, or pedaling a bike like the awesome Bradley Wiggins or Laura Trott, or float across the land at top speed like the graceful Allyson Felix, we can cherish the fact that others can, and relish the moments in which we give witness to it. And we were all witness to some awe inspiring moments.

I will miss the games of the 30th Olympiad. The countdown to the 31st has already begun!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Why Arsenal's Late Season Resurgence Should Not Paper Over The Cracks

Sports fans are emotional, recklessly irrational and notoriously fickle. One day, on the back of three losses on the trot, it is "Arsene Wenger out." A few wins on the trot and suddenly Arsenal are favorites to win the premier league next season. So after our best run of form to end this season, let us settle down and look at the big picture. 

While I may come across as pessimistic and a bit of a downer in this article, I fear that the good end of season form is glossing over the lingering problems the team faced earlier in the season. It is no coincidence that our best patch of the season has come with a fully fit back four. Personally, I love the combination of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen. They seem to have great chemistry together and most of all, they are strong, physical, have great positional sense and carry a certain swagger about them. I don't know about you, but I like my center back's to be tough, physical and have a no nonsense attitude. Having said that, how many of you can honestly say that when a high ball is played into the Arsenal box, you feel completely confident that the defense will clear it out with authority? I know I do not. Every time a high ball is played into the box, it is bingo time for the opposing center forwards. Also, considering Vermaelen's recent injury history, does anybody feel confident in Johan Djourou, Per Mertesacker or Sebastien Squillaci (By the way, where the hell has he been all season. Does he still play for Arsenal?) to fill in for him. That thought has me shaking in fear already. 

One take away from the run of form is how crucial our full backs, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna are. When the two were out through injury, as well as back up left back Andre Santos, Koscielny or Alex Song were forced to play out of position at the right back, and usually Vermaelen filled in at left back. And just as you would expect, when you put players in positions they are not accustomed to playing in, bad things happen. Our defense predictably leaked goals.

Surprisingly, the offense was hurt too. Ever since Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg left, wing play has not been one of Arsenal's strength's. Whatever productivity they got from the wings was a bonus. With Vermaelen and Koscielny playing as full backs, they were never involved on offense, making overlapping runs, or putting in crosses. As a result, opposing teams packed the middle of the field, therefore stopping Arsenal's biggest strength, the creativity in midfield. So that begs the question, what happens when Gibbs or Sagna goes down? Pray to the gods I guess. Gibbs especially has been injury prone, playing only 22 games this season, when the starting position was all his after Gael Clichy left. Also, is it just me, or does Andre Santos look fat and out of shape? It might be my overly critical eyes, so I will withhold judgment until next season. Same with Carl Jenkinson, who my only impression of this season, was the embarrassing 8-2 defeat at Manchester United. 

Scoring goals has never been a problem for Arsenal. It was nice to see in the last few games players like Theo Walcott, Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky, and even Thomas Vermaelen step up and score. If you are relying on one player to score a goal or more every game for you to even have a chance, then you are probably in trouble, even if that player is Robin Van Persie. It is clear we need reinforcements in the striking department. Ju-Young Park, Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho seem incapable of finding an ocean, let alone the back of the net. Their inability is the reason alone Arsene Wenger brought Thierry Henry back. Other strikers such as Carlos Vela, Nicklas Bendtner and Andrey Arshavin are out on loan and unlikely to return. Good thing too, because they were extremely poor. Lukas Podolski is a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough. One more established, experienced center forward would give us a great boost.

Our midfield looks good. Tomas Rosicky's revival has been pleasantly shocking to say the least. His revival seems symbolic of Arsenal's revival. His partnership with Van Persie, Arteta, Song, and Walcott looks promising. But hang on, theme alert here! Can we rely on Rosicky to give us a full season? Going by his past history, counting on Rosicky to give you a full season is like expecting Mitt Romney to find an issue that he does not flip flop about. It is just not going to happen. My humble diagnosis: another creative midfielder would do us a world of good. Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby would be like new signings for us, but I would not count on them being available for an entire season, especially Diaby. 

So there you have it. My two cents. In light of this run, I hope my fellow gooners do not unnecessarily inflate expectations and place added pressure on the team by saying things like "The premier league next season is ours to lose." No it will be Manchester City’s to lose, because only one of them will be defending champions. It is pretty clear too that Arsenal is still a mentally weak and fragile team. A mentally strong team would not lose to Wigan and QPR on the back of strong results. They build on results.

Having said all this, I still expect Arsenal to win the league next season! But for now, let us hope Arsene Wenger recognizes the cracks and fills them. I hope Arsene knows.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Magic Of Sports

For my very first blog post, I think it is appropriate I write about my love for sports. I love sports! Sometimes I wish I did not. Sometimes I wish a team did not matter to me so much, or I did not care about how they performed. But unfortunately, I just do. And you are going to be left reading my ramblings every week like a rejected lover.

Seeing as I am a psychology major, bear with me while I briefly go on a nerdy trip. In psychology, there is a theory that states that humans tend to remember traumatic and emotional events more vividly than other events. For instance, those of us who are old enough will remember exactly where we were and how we heard about the tragic events of 9/11 or the attacks on Mumbai on 26/11. Similarly, even though it was nine years ago, I still remember exactly when and where I was when I heard about my grandfather’s death. How is any of this relevant to sports? Well, to me sports, especially games involving my favorite teams, are just as emotional and stressful of a ride. I can remember exactly where I was the day Arsenal won the league and cup double in 2002, as well as when their “Invincibles” team won the 2004 league title without losing a single game. Painfully, I also vividly remember the 2006 champions league final loss to Barcelona, although I really wish I did not! I remember a time when during game day, the result of the Arsenal game could determine my entire day. This proved to be troublesome especially when I moved to the United States, because games over there were in the morning! A bad Arsenal result meant I was moody, irritable, angry and lacked productivity. That is how much Arsenal and sports mean to me. Thankfully, I have matured from that time!

My enjoyment of sports is not limited to my favorite teams. I have yet to come across a sport I have not enjoyed in some capacity. And I think this is because I equate sports to art. The reason we love and appreciate live acts such as theater and music, or the feats of the performers of Cirque Du Soleil, or the art of Van Gogh and Claude Monet, is because their work is so spectacular that we could never imagine doing it ourselves. We marvel at their creativity and ability, and the willingness to constantly produce better. We are left staring in awe wondering ""HOW"? (Or more like, HOW THE HELL DID THEY DO THAT) Sport is similar. The athletic and physical feats performed by so many athletes is beyond comprehension. They seem super human to us, like Brett Lee bowling at 160 km/h, or Michael Phelps winning 8 gold medals in one Olympics, or Blake Griffin dunking over a car. And they do it all on the biggest of stages, with so much pressure and so many people watching. It is incomprehensible that Sachin Tendulkar can play so well in front of a billion people and yet appear to be so normal for twenty years! How does Michael Schumacher drive in circles for 70 laps, at such high speeds in the furnace that is a Formula 1 car, and never at once look jaded? 

This is why I love sports, to see people so committed and dedicated to their profession, so gifted with talent, beat all the odds and succeed, and then bask in their glory. And this is why it was so special when Sachin finally won a world cup after six tries, or Dirk Nowitzki finally won a title after thirteen seasons or, more recently, Tiger Woods beat all the odds to win the Memorial. You could tell how much it meant to them, how much they cared, and how hard they worked. If you are a true sports fan, you were happy for them, irrespective of your loyalties. 

Sport also throws up those special moments when an athlete leaves you wanting more. And I say special because their short comings makes you appreciate greatness more. Asafa Powell, one of the best 100m runners in the world, never did better than fifth place in the Olympics. While others thrived under the spotlight, he shrunk. We love Usain Bolt because he did it on the biggest of stages. Watching the recent champions league final between Chelsea and Munich, it was painfully obvious that Arjen Robben lacked mental strength. After missing a penalty in overtime, the last thing he wanted to do was take another during the shootout. Arch your mind back to the 2010 World Cup, and Asamoah Gyan, after missing a penalty in the last minutes of extra time against Uruguay in the quarter finals, stepped up and drilled a penalty in the shootout. One crumbled under the pressure, the other thrived. Think of any sport, and you will find an elite athlete who just cannot get it done. Tennis and Andy Murray. Golf and Colin Montgomerie. Basketball and Karl Malone. (Lebron James? To be continued....)

That is the magic of sports, watching regular humans perform super human feats.

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