x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fame and misfortune

Life at the top of your game is not plain sailing as in the cases of the in-form Novak Djokovic and the fallen Tiger Woods.

The news that two of sports biggest names will alight in Abu Dhabi this winter reveals a spiteful little quirk about fame.

Fame, the huffy beast, not only asks an ambitious athlete to throw his life away on the lonely drudgery of practice hours; it also has the gall to request fortuitous timing.

The varying cases of Tiger Woods and Novak Djokovic tell us that while public acclaim and fascination often trade on whether you dominate your given sport, they trade also on when you dominate.

Even though Woods has stumbled through 2011 while Djokovic has soared, the name Woods inspires more awe than it should given recent results, and Djokovic's name inspires less.

Both conditions owe to the uncontrollable landscapes of their individual sports.

Woods turns up alongside one of the most-used passages in lingual history: he has not won a golf tournament since November 2009.

He also has not won a major tournament since June 2008. He has made nibbles - four top-fives at majors - but has not come through, a passage that never used to share a paragraph with his name.

Still, people yearn to see, partly out of the flickering question of whether he might become Tiger Woods again, but also with the much-noted ache for him to become Tiger Woods again and cure a vacuum.

His fall from awesomeness after his 14th major title at the 2008 US Open wound up preceding stark fragmentation. Thirteen different players have won the last 13 majors. Ten of the last 11 have been first-time winners. They include the surnames Glover, Yang, Oosthuizen, Schwartzel and Bradley, the last the least known even to some diehard golf fans before the latest episode of Hey, Who's That Guy With The Trophy?

None of these guys deserves mockery. Each did something ludicrously hard. Yet in the talent-rich dissolution of it all, no telegenic themes have formed.

If two of the winners of those last 13 majors, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy, or any of a bushel of other players, had flirted with the top routinely, maybe even forged new rivalries, even the dimpled brains among us could divert more time from the 50th-ranked Woods.

Djokovic, conversely, pops up on the other end of a regal formation.

At almost any other time along tennis history, a player winning three of the four grand slam tournaments, possessing a big-rooster personality and yanking that gargantuan service return on match point against Roger Federer at the US Open, would lure such blaring affection it might even cause queasiness.

When Federer won three of the four grand slams in 2004, he became the first player in 16 years to do so.

Yet since then, we think it normal, maybe even not all that hard (Federer again in 2006 and 2007, Rafael Nadal in 2010, Djokovic in 2011).

Worse for Djokovic's due, witnesses spent those years building up towering affinities for Federer and Nadal, Federer for his impossible elegance and dutiful ambassadorship, Nadal for his blast-furnace will and his unfailing manners.

Fanatics loved one or both of them so much that some even cooked up creatively infantile ways to dislike the other.

Those two won 25 of the last 30 majors before 2011, creating a situation almost inverted to what any dominant golfer - Woods, included - would inherit now.

As the two play on among the big four, that leaves little room for new love and probably allows only for a rude antagonist, a role Djokovic would seem too sensitive to fit.

He came into view five years ago as a thoughtful guy with big promise. He did spot-on impersonations, became known tiresomely as a guy who did impersonations and had to answer questions city-to-city as if that were his lone aspect.

He squandered the 2007 US Open final against Federer, won the 2008 Australian and settled in to build a mansion and moat at No 3 in the world.

Then something within him would not tolerate No 3. He made adjustments that included the grim task of gluten freedom.

His US Open final with Nadal looked like some benchmark in human evolution given the difficulty of getting a ball past either player, prompting some scholars to wonder about widening the court.

When Djokovic proved fitter even then, he had broken into that unforgiving wall of Federer-Nadal, made some want to run amok from all gluten, all of it uncommonly impressive and yet not yet seeming to draw public warmth.

Fame can be so fussy.

cculpepper@thenational.ae


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