Monday, January 30, 2006

Let's celebrate Mediocrity!

Before I start my rant, I will give you all a heads up. If you like Sania Mirza, or dare I say, love, then stop here. This is not for you.

Sania Mirza, the tennis darling of India, was awarded the Padma Shri award this year. It is an award given by the Government of India generally to Indian citizens to recognize their distinguished contribution in any sphere of activity including Arts, Education, Industry, Literature, Science, Games, Sports etc. Let's list out some stats, just for everyone's benefit.

1. Sania went pro in 2003.
2. Sania started playing Grand Slam tournaments in 2005, where out of the 4 tournaments, her best performance was the 4th round in the US Open.
3. She finished 2004 at a rank of 206 and then finished 2005 at 34.
4. Till date she has won 1 WTA tour event, and that in her hometown of Hyderabad beating Alona Bondarenko, a player now ranked 86.
5. Sania is ranked 34 now.
6. She has beaten only two top 10 players, Petrova and Kuznetsova.
7. She lost to Michela Krajicek in the 2006 Australian Open, a lower ranked player.
8. Sania is 18.

Is Sania a good tennis player? Yes.
Is Sania a great tennis player? No.
Does she have potential to become great? Maybe.

And now she's a Padma Shri winner. Either the government of India believes Sania is great, or being good is enough for them. I am inclined to believe it's the latter as she certainly isn't great. Have our standards become so low that we are willing to award and merit achievements that though are good by India standards are way below par at the world level. I compare Sania to Maria Sharapova, similar age (Maria is younger), and in a way, similar characteristics, young, good looking, ambitious and quite a sensation. But Sharapova has won 10 WTA tournaments, a Grand Slam, and is ranked 4th in the world. Ranking the players by prize money, Sania is not 34 but drops to 59 in the world. It is easy to note the correlation between rank and prize money. The better the tournament, the higher the prize money, and to me, the disparity in Sania's ranks between the two scales clearly shows that her climb up the charts had more to do with a smart selection of tournaments than her performance. Not great. Just good enough.

There are two conversations in my life that bother me from time to time. The first, a couple of years ago, I had an argument with my dad. He told me I would be mediocre all my life, ofcourse in context then. I remember racing out of the room, crying, and screaming that it would never be so. It scarred me then, but has made me a madman today. In everything I do, I must be the best, which brings me to the second conversation. About two years ago, I had an argument with friends about why I must be so competitive. Why I must want to win every time? I argued that it is me, whether it was playing a friendly game of cards, or taking a photograph, or just arguing, I must win. I have often asked myself since, if that's healthy, or should I be happy just winning sometimes and not ALL the time? Yet, as of today, though I am doing well, I am still mediocre or less given that Sania I claim is mediocre. But should I now take solace in her award, and aim now merely for "Indian greatness" and not "World greatness"?

India, for a long time now, has reveled in its mediocrity. Why else would a nation be happy winning a handful of medals in the Olympics, none of them gold, or be happy with one great chess champion, a couple of other good sportsmen, a few great Nobel laureates, a movie like Black, that they proclaimed to be of Oscar calibre, though it is clear India is at least a decade behind in master movie making? By recognizing Sania with a Padma award, India is sending a message to millions of youngsters, telling them it is enough if they become like Sania. Some might claim that the award is to motivate her to greatness and not to reward her for her greatness. Unfortunately I believe the Padma Shri award should be given only to those who have achieved greatness at a world level. In fact, I am going to go ahead, and proclaim that Sania will never become the top women's player in the world. But it doesn't matter, because as Indians, we don't need her to. We are happy with her in the mid thirties. Anything more would just be a bonus. It is time India, Indians, stepped out of their bubble, and honestly tell themselves, that they are at best, like me, mediocre. Maybe, we are moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. In the meantime, save those awards only for those who have given India everything they possibly can and Sania certainly hasn't.


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5:21 PM  
Blogger Incognito said...

Very interesting line of thought. Even I have given it a thought. The word "compromise" seems to equal "perfection" in our country.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Ajaxus said...

Will try and play Devil's Advocate a little bit here.

Sometimes I feel that it is an attempt by the Govt. to be seen as modern and moving with the times that they can recognize and reward a newer sportsperson / achiever, that they are not simply a set of old codgers.

Clearly this award is a little too early. Does Sania have game? Yes. A lot of middling tennis players are successful without having a single outstanding weapon in their arsenal. Michael Chang won one grand slam and reached the final of two others with footspeed as his major attribute. Sania has more than one strength and like you point out, she has just one year of slams behind her. To claim that she will never be the top player seems a bit much, perhaps? Perhaps you don't believe she can do that, bcos she's Indian? What was Roger Federer's ranking one year after he started playing tennis? Higher than 34? How many titles had he won after his first two years on tour?

Does she need to be the top player in the world to win the Padma Shri? No. Is Kamal Hassan the best actor in the world? No, but he thinks he is and he maybe the best we've got. Is he the 34th best actor in the world? Maybe. If Kamal Hassan was 28 and as good at that age, would he still have won the award? Maybe.

My only complaint here is that there are several people more worthy than Sania to win the award at this point in time. As a teenager, she could have waited her turn and we could have waited to see how her potential translates into performance.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Ajaxus said...

Just another comment to add...

Here are the countries represented in the Top 35 of the WTA tennis tour.

Germany - efficiency, class, no mediocrity you might think. They still have just 1 player in the top 35. Grand slam titles - 0

Switzerland - tons of money, first class watches, perfection - 1 person in the top 35. Grand slam titles - 0

Spain - beauty, beaches, money - 1 player in the top 35. Grand slam titles - 0.

USA - world's biggest economy - 2 players in the top 35.

Just 1 more than India, Germany, Spain, Argentina, Japan, Slovakia. The same number as Italy, Serbia and Montenegro and Belgium.
Only Russia, France and Czech Republic have more.

My point is this... it isn't easy being a top 35 tennis player. America with its obsession with sports and its facilities and its tennis scholarships can only get two players in the top 35. One of them is Davenport who's been playing for 13 odd years. The other is Venus Williams who's been playing tennis ever since she was born and was raised on a diet of tennis just so that she could one
day be World #1.

Sania Mirza played on dung courts in Hyderabad, attended school for a large part of her life and couldn't always play tennis in India wearing comfortable clothing being a muslim girl in Hyderabad.
If she wants to start playing the main draws of big tournaments more regularly she has to qualify for them based on her WTA ranking. If that means raising her ranking playing lesser events so be it. Is her achievement reduced? Not all that much.

So while the point about the award being slightly undeserved at this stage is well taken, let's not call her achievement mediocre or knock the girl just yet.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Newfire said...

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11:30 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Jo, this may be another example of our lemming-like tendency to find the "flavour of the day" and blindly follow it, to whatever end. Example: cricket (not that I would know... hehe!) I guess the only way things will improve (for Sania) is if she doesn't let all the attention and the awards get to her head, and just sticks to what she does best.

PS, "Hi" to both you and Shwe!
PPS, I'm now on Blogspot. For better or for worse!

2:57 PM  
Blogger blr bytes said...

2:13 AM  
Blogger quills said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:50 AM  
Blogger quills said...

I completely agree with you. We lack the competitive mindset that all the other countries and their athletes seem to possess in abundance. The good thing seems to be that we have firmly taken to heart the Olympic creed that its more important to participate than win. And as you rightly said, when we ourselves reward mediocrity, why would we be motivated to get the highest laurels. Look at China. A decade ago they were virtually non existent on the international sports map including they are becoming the team to beat in almost every sport.

6:51 AM  
Blogger shyamala subramanian said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:13 AM  
Blogger shyamala subramanian said...

Hey jo,
Interesting blog.I remember that argument we had on how much competition is healthy.Well I feel that I am more and more settling for medicore things on a everyday basis but does that make me less competitive? I am not sure...
Anyways I am tring my hand at blogging too..

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