The entire set lasted just a few seconds longer than the dramatic last game of their classic Wimbledon final. Still, if you cared enough to try real hard, really bloody hard, then the blue surface beneath Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic’s feet could have turned green; sprouting evenly shaved blades of grass along the way.
If you focused like your life depended on it, you would have noticed inflated Kangaroo dolls and faces painted in red-and-white checks in the stands, not empty plastic orange seats. You would have seen a Royal Box and not a noisy corporate one.
And if you pushed yourself slightly more, wrestling your mind that much closer to insanity, you wouldn’t have heard the emcee rousing the crowd between points with ‘oye Delhi, make some noise’; rather you would have heard repeated calls for silence by the chair umpire with his stern ‘thank you, the gentlemen are ready’.
Hell, Ivanisevic even did his bit to transport us back to 2001 by wagging his finger at God; wag, wag, wag, followed by that devilish smile. He invoked Bad Goran. Young Bad Goran. We invoked nostalgia. Good old nostalgia.
We tried, they helped and a dark Saturday evening in the centre-north of Delhi nearly, surely and momentarily metamorphosed into a distant sunny Monday afternoon in the south-west of London. And just like that day, 13 years ago, when he found himself two sets to one down and a break down early in the fourth, Patrick Rafter was threatening an impossible comeback.
When he serves, Rafter resembles mercury in motion — always splitting, always merging, always fluid, always beautiful. But the motion is less silver flash and more silver streak. No matter the surface or situation, after racquet meets ball he is off, streaming ahead in the shadow of the ball’s trajectory. It happened again, at 0-5, serving to stay in the set on a blue surface that had just turned into a lawn.
He goes wide to Ivanisevic’s backhand, who slices it back in play. But Rafter is there at the net of course, tapping it cross-court for 15-0. From the ad-court side, the Aussie looks to exploit the Croat’s backhand again, serving down the T. Ivanisevic punches it back and begins a rally. Rafter is in no mood for one, however, and shanks his glorious sway of a single-handed backhand into the net. 15-all.
The crowd is chanting the opponent’s name, so Rafter responds, serving and volleying his way to tennis’s bygone one-two punch. 30-15. Now he goes wide to Ivanisevic’s forehand, which the big, emotional Croat cuts back in close to the net, close to a preying Rafter. The Aussie scoops it up with his frame and delicately squirts it over cross-court, dragging Ivanisevic ahead.
He makes it and shows the same gentle care in his stroke that his adversary did, squeezing it inside-out and cross-court with his left hand past Rafter’s chest. It falls wide and Rafter is serving for the game; for his first game.
A high ball is tossed over a twisting granite chest. Knees are coiled and uncoiled. Bang! Ace, down T. 1-5.
Ivanisevic is serving for the set, but doesn’t trust himself. So he winds up the crowd — not with tears like on that fateful day but with his hands. Swaying hands, pleading with the men, women and children to back him up here. They do, and he gets into service position.
He arches his spine, arches his backside and arches his left knee. All at right angles to something else.
Then he reveals his racquet, hidden thus far under his thigh, and arcs his way up. Thwoick. Fault. The routine repeats itself. Thwoick. Another fault. 0-15.
This is surely that day. This is surely that London day. This is soon 30-40 and Goran points to the skies — a big blue blanket, not some roof in New Delhi.
This is Rafter’s big chance. But during a surge ahead in the infancy of a rally, he slices a shot into the net. Deuce. The first deuce of this match. Do you remember what happened the last time a game went to deuce when they were pros? Goran double faulted four times, squandered championship points thrice, chased an ace-ball twice, crossed his chest once. Cried throughout, sometimes thinking of suicide, sometimes of a fulfilled life in the future. All during the seemingly never-ending cycle of deuce-advantage-deuce-advantage…
After a breather, Rafter takes his receiving position and Ivanisevic arches into a serve to begin that delicious cycle. The Croat dishes out a massive serve, but it is also a massive fault. He gets his second serve in towards Rafter’s forehand, who flat-hits it to Ivanisevic’s weaker side. No weakness here, says Ivanisevic, thumping a perfect, down-the-line winner. The cycle has begun.
Or so we, the insane, would like to think.
The truth is, the match is over because here there are no deuces. This is the IPTL and a single-point decider settles 40-all. The truth is, this wasn’t a regular set of tennis but some hybrid with ‘innovations’ like power points (where a player can get two points for the cost of one), shoot-outs and super-shoot-outs. The truth is, there was never Pat versus Goran, only extensions of them representing DBS Singapore Slammers and Musafir.com UAE Royals.
So as the set ended without a handshake and Yo Yo Honey Singh blared through the speakers and a roof shut SW19 out of thought and brought us back to IGI again, we bid goodbye to blue skies.