Gone are the days when a certain Muhammad Ali would decimate his opponents by the sheer weight of the phrase “I am the greatest” or a certain McEnroe would smash a backhand cross-court in disdain for the last line call. The Zizous, the Warnies and the McGraths have retired, so have the Agassis and the Schumachers. The Golden Bad-Boys of sport, the quintessential mavericks, the protagonists of the greatest sports legends, have all…gone. What is even more surprising is that the world has come to live with it. The past six months have seen a gradual yet startling change in the world of international sports. It is a change which, certainly, has contrasting consequences. Furthermore, it is a change which may either revolutionize the way a sport is played or the way that sport is viewed.
The Maverick Champion is out. The new avatar of the champion is the “Smooth Operator”. Welcome to the world of the Federers, the Kakas, the Tiger Woods, and the Kimi Raikkonens. These are the somber, mild-mannered champions who are extremely conscious of their legacy. As recent a memory as this week confirmed this when one dignified man made it a point to be nonplussed by the intense furor and pressure over the past week and led his side to a vindicating victory over a world conquering Australia in Perth. Anil Kumble and Ricky Ponting are ideal case studies for bringing home the point I am trying to make. On one side, we have a breathtakingly devastating batsman making sure no one ignores him, either by his on-field antics or by his aggressive chides at his rivals, not to forget his refreshing stroke play. He is also the one taking controversies head-on. On the other side, we have an equally devastating bowler but someone who is cool and composed, willing to back-off if need be. Kumble is the statesman, the ideal ambassador for the game. However, he is not advertising material like his counterpart! Whatever it is, both are equally important for the game.
This also brings us to the problem that all sports today are facing. The modern code of conduct is turning sportspersons into robots. We understand that no one wants a fist fight but these days, even a trace of dissent is fined, slightest altercation discouraged and voice subdued (Poor Maria Sharapova can’t even scream now much to the disappointment of her fans!). Marat Safin has started exiting tournaments early and Christiano Ronaldo has stopped getting awards. Bhajji has been banned (temporarily) and Jose Mourinho has been sacked. In short, mavericks are under attack. Well, all of us love the “Smooth Operators” and we think they are great for the game but we also have a serious problem with the “Mavericks” being discouraged. The Governing Bodies world over have to realize that both these “groups” of players must co-exist. Their co-existence has always been the beauty of sports. From the days of Connors (smooth operator) vs. McEnroe (Maverick) in tennis and Frazier vs. Ali in boxing to India vs. Australia in cricket and ManU vs. AC Milan in soccer, the greatest rivalries have always been between these two forms of champions.
Banning good players for being human and calling them bad role models is outright absurd. The public should be responsible for making the choice themselves; we don’t want the FIFA or ICC or ATP to make it for us. Modern day Mavericks have been stifled due to the sudden onslaught of the moral police but I am sure they will resurface. There is still hope because just as I was finishing this article I heard Lleyton Hewitt shouting to Marcos Baghdatis-“C’mooonn!”