Ranjona Banerji | Keeping score, for the love of tennis and for mother

The Asian Age.  | Ranjona Banerji

Opinion, Columnists

It was in the 2000s that this love for tennis was reborn to a fulltime obsession and it was Roger Federer who did it

It was Roger Federer we wanted to watch but we watched everything that was on offer.

I got into so much trouble for my last column, the one on music. A justifiably furious phone call from someone who’s known me all my life: why didn’t you mention the Beatles? What a huge miss. Why didn’t I? Another bam (!) from my closest friend on the credit I should have given people, for shaping my tastes in music. From Andrew Lloyd Webber fans. And so on. My sincerest apologies to all.

So then, I thought to myself, how do I annoy people even further. The answer was easy, what with the wrong person winning the men’s single final at Wimbledon (there, I said it) and the Olympics, well, Sport. Already I know my closest friend has fallen asleep.

Given my age, interest in sport came from actually watching live sport, even taking part in school and inter-school events. Track and field usually and at one school in Bombay, as it was known then, marching was taken very seriously. Round and round the University Grounds at Marine Drive we went to military tunes. Did reasonably well I seem to remember but who knows how much of the 1970s was real? I have some connections to cricket and thus watched a few Ranji matches at the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay.

And then, radio. Hours of listening to commentary. I have a certain fluency in Hindi numbers (as opposed to the actual language) which came purely from listening to cricket scores. And for some reason, though I found him interminably boring at the age of 11 or 12, I listened assiduously to Vijay Merchant’s radio show. Why exactly I did this cricket thing I really do not know. I outgrew the lure of the sport itself quite fast but the tiny bit of knowledge I acquired has helped me greatly since in annoying cricket fans (actual cricket aficionados are a little cannier I discovered). I’ve even read quite a lot of cricket writing and worked in a cricket magazine once!

But really it was Doordarshan, at the risk of sounding like the boring old coot I am, that brought home the breadth of sport available to the rest of the world. We got our first TV set, a black and white EC, in 1974. Until then it had been hounding the only neighbour with our presence: the price of owning a TV set! The West Indies tour of India 1974-75 was terribly exciting, even if the commentators stunned us with their banalities of green grass and blue skies. Of course, it all looked grey to us.

And then my parents introduced us to Wimbledon. Like a good former British colony, that’s all Doordarshan showed us as far as tennis went. But it was enough to spark a lifelong love affair. The finals weekend we were honoured with was so exciting. Would it be Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova? How would John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors behave? You had to pray for so many things with one TV channel, especially after we moved to Calcutta in the late 1970s. That there would be no power cut, that the final would end before 8 pm India time because invariably, even if it was the last winning or losing shot, the telecast would cut to the news, that some odd mishap would not lead to that wonkily placed paper message saying: “sorry for the inconvenience” accompanied by annoying whiny music.

My parents were great tennis fans. They also claimed they had played although I never saw them with a racquet in their hands. Have to take their word for it. They certainly knew their stuff and taught us well.

The annual Wimbledon final became a tradition. As a working person in a hostel, access to TV was not always possible but us fans tried to commandeer the common room TV set on the weekends. It’s hard to describe sometimes how much life has changed since those days. We’ve got used to so much now.
It was in the 2000s that this love for tennis was reborn to a fulltime obsession and it was Roger Federer who did it. It became a family thing again, the sharing enabled by satellite TV television and mobile phones. My parents had recently moved to Dehradun and managed to get a cable connection to their village home. Freezing winter late nights and early mornings, we sat huddled next to a kerosene heater to watch the Australian and US Opens. And all those other tournaments across the world.

It was Federer we wanted to watch but we watched everything that was on offer. And if the TV didn’t show it — and how many fights I’ve had with every sports channel! — the Internet arrived with its streaming options. I cancelled a subscription to a famous direct-to-home TV service because it changed its rules before the French Open. My local cable TV operator, also a fellow tennis fan, turned out to be a much better option.

It’s been tough, the last few years, not just because of Federer’s fading glory albeit with moments of sparkling brilliance even at his age. My mother’s passing four years ago socked a huge hole out of me: she was my tennis mainstay and I find myself wavering and losing perspective now. I want to keep at it — I can see her shaking her head sadly at my failing courage — and am working on heading back.

Assuming no further disasters happen given the pandemic, there are the Olympics to look forward to. One of the few times when the big stars in the worlds of other sports — whether they’re included in the Olympics or not — have to play second fiddle to a group of premium athletes in their prime in disciplines as diverse as sprints and marathons, ice dancing and curling, walking and jumping.

And now when you ask yourself, why have I left out all the sports that you love, if you paid attention in the beginning, you’d realise being annoying is a bad habit I have!