Thursday, May 25, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 25th May 2006

From the "Bahrain Tribune"

The remarkable achievement of Martina Hingis in winning the Italian Tennis Open in Rome on Sunday will be especially welcome to those sporting spectators who favour style over power and finesses over brute strength. Although a chronic foot injury was the main cause of Hingis’s early retirement from the sport it was also clear that she felt at the time that she would struggle to compete with the power game of the likes of the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and the formidable Amélie Mauresmo. Perhaps the emergence of other players in the women’s game (notably the diminutive Justine Hedin-Hardenne and the tall but slight Russian stars like Sharapova and Dementieva) has persuaded Hingis that there is still a chance that her more artistic style can compete with those who succeed with a more muscular game. Since she first emerged as a bubbly teenager (she was only 16 when she won three of the four Grand Slam events in 1997) Hingis was always been a crowd favourite but it asks a lot of any sports person to come back after a lay-off over nearly four years. And if at 25 Hingis has matured as a competitor as well (and if she stays fit and focused) she might yet win another Grand Slam event – and that will be a delight for all of us who have missed the Swiss Miss.

It is not just in Tennis that the battle between style and force always leads to an intriguing contest – sporting history is enriched by the battles between the artist and the artisan. When the young Cassius Clay beat that old brute Sonny Liston more than forty years ago the sporting world rejoiced. And when Sachin Tendulkar, during the 1996 Cricket World Cup, overcame a West Indies attack which included Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop with an exquisite 70 from 91 balls it was again the triumph of the artist. The point about Clay and Tendulkar and Hingis is not just that their artistry is more pleasing on the eye (although it is) but that it is complementary to a sound technique as well. You don’t succeed in any sport if you don’t get the basics right – but if you also have that extra dimension of colour and style as well then the stadia will always be full.

In the search for power Tiger Woods put on more than twenty-five pounds in weight over the years taking him from a gangly, 155-pound 21-year-old into the 180-pound athlete that he is now. All of that weight gain was in muscle not fat and it came from Woods following a rigorous gym regime to build up his upper body strength. Each to his own, of course, but I can’t help wondering if Woods really needed to build his power game in this way. Surely a golfer of his supreme natural talent did not also need to be the weight-lifting champion of the tour as well? Indeed golf is the game that perhaps you most think of when you realise that big is not always best. The finesse of a Gary Player or an Ian Woosnam or a Corey Pavin (all small men) can sometimes prevail over the big hitters. Player augmented his natural talent with a fitness regime just as determined as that of Tiger Woods but this was designed not to bulk him up nor make him physically stronger but to help him keep alert. At 70 Player looks the same at a distance as he did fifty years ago – close up he is a bit more gnarled but there is no sign of a paunch! And the style is still there.

And so to Kevin Pietersen the England cricketer who I think is one of the most remarkable talents to have come into the game in recent years - and one who has both the rapier and the bludgeon as a weapon. I have been cautious about hailing the talent of Pietersen up until now but having seen him play a long and mature knock of 158 in the recent Lord’s Test (which brought him to over a thousand Test runs in only 23 innings) I am convinced that he is something special. Not Tendulkar (although it took Sachin five more innings to reach his thousand) – but far from a grinding run machine either. KP has it all - power and timing and shots that you won’t see in any coaching manual – a style that makes him a unique artist who plays the game in the brightest colours and (like Clay, or Hingis or Player) always with a smile on his face.