On a cold summer’s day in Melbourne this January, I stumbled upon the Fight Club writer. Not Chuck Palahniuk in the flesh but another book by him, Consider This, which is about the art of storytelling. Later that night, skipping through it, I underlined this paragraph about Palahniuk’s visit to see The Last Supper in Milan.
“In that quick visit,” he wrote, “I saw how the picture is really a catalog of gesture. The body language transcends Italian or English. Honestly all the emoticons are there in one painting.
“In short, dialogue is your weakest storytelling tool. As Tom Spanbauer (a writer he studied with) always taught us, ‘Language is not our first language.’”
If you follow sport, you know about this. Bodies speak in arenas and within this language confidence has its own dialect. Attitude, we say. An air. Vanity. Conviction. There’s no single word for it but you can see it. Tilt of head. Strut in step. Stance of body. It’s not rude, it might even be fake.
Like most things, even with cockiness there’s a line. Nick Kyrgios has never seen it. Jimmy Connors spat on it. Usain Bolt laughed his way while on it. Muhammad Ali danced on it. Pride is fascinating. So is swagger. Viv Richards ground down his gum with a look which said, “what the f*** you doing on my planet?” Confidence is fascinating, how it inflates people into superheroes. Novak Djokovic in Australia was coated in it. It’s his thickest skin.
Tiger Woods can be a jerk but that stare? Goes through walls, humans, history. Two weeks ago, Ian Thorpe, a finely-mannered gent who was visiting Singapore, told me about his glory days: “When I compete, I’m tougher than anyone else.” He’s retired, so we don’t flinch, but athletes can’t always say what’s in their heads because we will judge them. But the truth is that on big points, with so much hinging on one shot, they are often reassured by a thought which might smell of conceit when spoken aloud but without which it’s hard to be great.
I am superior to that guy, that girl, to anyone.
Like the crucial point Sania Mirza plays in the semi-finals of the mixed doubles at the Australian Open. It’s her last Grand Slam. She has had surgeries on two knees and a wrist, had three casts on her ankles, was playing in January with a meniscus tear, had once torn her abdomen and also her adductor, but this one thing is intact.
As a January night fell in Melbourne, both of us sitting in a silent corridor, I had asked what she would miss the most and she said, unhesitatingly, the competition, the adrenaline, the pressure.
And then she added:
“I like feeling nerves, where I feel like it’s depending on me. Like today at 8-6 (in the super tie-breaker), I like that situation. And I know it’s crazy to say that, and I know people are, like, what are you talking about, but it’s something that I feel, that in that moment, at 8-6, I feel I’m better than the other people. That’s how I feel. Whether I am or not is a secondary issue.
“So,” she laughs, “I will miss that.”
So will I.
But she didn’t miss the shot. At 8-6, she creamed a backhand winner. And got to the final.
So many things this brassy, unafraid woman gave us, but the attitude was the most unforgettable. She approached tough situations as she did her forehands: She stepped into them and let go. Just the freedom with which she hit that shot, like a roundhouse punch to open a bar fight, gave us a glimpse of who she was. Toughness is a worthy legacy, fearlessness is a powerful bequest. Especially if you consider what she was like as a child.
“Believe it or not, but growing up in school, I was a very shy kid. And I was a very intelligent shy kid who knew all the answers to all the questions. But imagine, I used to sit at the back of the room and not even put my hand up...because I didn’t want people to turn around and look at me.”
Then in 2003, at 16, she won the Wimbledon junior doubles title and received an open-truck parade and life altered and confidence arrived and a truth struck her: “I’m actually good at what I do.” And, she adds, imagine the shift because “my entire life now has become (about) people turning and looking”.
She has lived in this public eye and it has often been mean and testing but she has never shrunk from it. In a way, match points were minor issues in a world where she was objectified, confronted with stereotypes and mocked by sexist trolls. Which male athlete ever had to deal with the length of his shorts? Sometimes, you had to wonder, how did she manage all this?
“I’m quite thick-skinned,” she says. “And I think that it’s honestly the stuff that I went through outside of the tennis that has actually made me who I am in terms of my personality. I feel that I wouldn’t be like this strong...and this attitude, or this person would not have been there.
“Because I learnt so early in my life to create a wall in front of me, where when people talk to me, they’re talking to me past a wall, and it takes a lot for that person to break that wall and come through to me.”
Her numbers—43 doubles titles, six Grand Slam titles (doubles and mixed), 91 weeks at No.1—are immense but it’s the force of Mirza which will stay with me. The kicking down of doorways. The look. The sassiness. The occasional abrasiveness. The messaging to other Indian women of what was possible. The refusal to flinch, on court or in the press room. All the while introducing us to a language which had a mighty music to it.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.