Rumi Karek was looking out of his window. He lived in a spacious flat on the sixth floor of an apartment complex located in a good neighbourhood. He could have lived in a bigger place- a bungalow or a villa. But he was not fond of huge places with a number of rooms, which were seldom used. Compact and cozy was what he wanted. It was not like he lacked the money to buy a bigger independent home. As a winner of 20 grand slam titles and 153 titles overall, money was never an issue.
It was 10.30am and the reporter was expected to come at 10.45am. That was the time she suggested and to which he acquiesced. He was amused that there was someone like him out there, someone who did not measure time in multiples of 30 minutes. Whatever was wrong with meeting someone at 10.45am or 11.05am or a minute before noon? What was exactly wrong in fixing an appointment at such times? It was a habit of his to fix meetings at these odd times and see if people complied.
He knew the girl; 23 year old and working as a sports correspondent with World Sports, the sports channel. For the new year, the channel was coming up with a special programme on the icons in various sports. Rumi was selected as the “Iconic Tennis Player”; or was it “Tennis Icon of the Decade”?
Rumi recalled her being fairly knowledgeable about the game when she last interviewed him for a segment before the Australian Open at the beginning of the year. He even remembered her name. Was it Lara? He was pretty confident, it was. It was a name hard to forget. It was the name of the heroine in one of his favourite books- Doctor Zhivago. He later saw the recording of the interview and recalled liking how it turned out.
She arrived a couple of minutes before time and introduced herself as Lara Costa (Ah… yeah… he remembered the surname now. He did ask her if she was related to the Spanish winner of the Men’s title at the French Open. She said she was not; at least not that she knew of). She did not remind him that she had interviewed him earlier that year. However, when he recalled the interview, she was delighted; more surprised than delighted.
They commenced the interview right away. She informed him that the channel wanted a detailed interview with him, one that would, sort of, tell the story of his tennis journey in its entirety.
Costa: So when did Rumi Karek decide to become a tennis player?
Karek: Well…as far back as I can remember I wanted to be rich and affluent; affluent enough to not worry about money. The goal was to be able to spend without having to be frugal, spend with a sense of abandon. Tennis was a means to that. Of course, I loved the game; still do. It was not like I was some poor sap who was pushed into the game by over-zealous parents. It was my choice. Plus, it did not hurt that I was good at it... ha-ha!
Costa: (smiles) … and your parents? Highly supportive?
Karek: Well… I started playing when I was four. My neighbours were into the game; parents and their two kids. The children were twins and four years older than me. My parents were initially amused, proud too, and encouraged me to play. You see, they were academicians, school teachers with no serious interest in sports per se. So I guess they were surprised that I gravitated towards the game. They did not realize that I was getting serious about the sport. They, my mom especially, were glad that I was getting some physical activity. She believed in its importance and was not too keen on having me languish at home.
Costa: So when did they realize that you were serious about tennis?
Karek: I recall the day. It was a couple of months before I turned 13. I wanted to enter an Under-13 event in the neighbouring city. It was supposed to begin on a Friday I think. When I told my parents about it. They reminded me that I had exams commencing on the coming Monday and that if I won the initial rounds and went deep into the tournament it would mean that I would have to miss the exams. I can still remember the exact words or maybe I am imagining it. Anyway, I said “What does it matter? I am going to be a tennis player anyway.” Then there was cajoling from their end. They tried to convince me that it was not a bright idea and that it would pass. I tried to convince them this was what I was meant to do.
Costa: So when you turned professional at 15, success came in big helpings. Were you prepared for it? At that time, there was a perception that there could have been a burn-out. It did not take that rough road. Things did go smooth.
Karek: To be fair to the people who were critical of me turning pro at 15, they did not have a precedent; at least in Men’s tennis. No yardstick for them. I was indifferent to it. I was constantly telling myself to push aside all those opinions and focus on my goals.
As for the success, like I said, at every point I had some goals; goals in terms of match win, and win on different surfaces. Plus there was this target that I set myself sometime during the initial phase of my tennis career. I wanted eight grand slams (two each of Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open). You see, I wasn’t too greedy...(laughs)… and yeah… I was ready for it. Ready because what I got was what I always wanted.
Costa: (smiles) So this has been a long journey. 21 years. We at World Sports are recognizing you as the “Tennis Icon of the Decade”. Your thoughts on the decade that went by?
Karek: Thank you for that. I’m honoured. When the decade started I was playing really well. I was at the peak of my game. Twelve of my slams came in the last decade. I felt that while I played a more fearless game when I was around, say, 17 years old, back then, I had some days when I was woefully bad. In the last decade though, I found myself staying in a match even when I was not playing my best. You can perhaps attribute it to experience or may be even to the fact that in the last decade I played thinking that I did not have to prove anything to anyone.
Costa: But aren’t sports all about constantly proving yourself? There are always comparisons with the past greats. How did you react when your name keeps cropping up in these discussions?
Karek: That is always there, especially in tennis. There is a constant stream of articles on all-time best forehands, backhands, volleys, serve, court-coverage and down-the-line shots etc. There is even talk about which player is mentally the strongest! There is no end of these discussions. Nor is there any….. weight in them.
I personally believed that your results speak the most about you. It does not matter if you have the most unreadable serve or the most lethal forehand. If you cannot win matches with them and say crumble during important situations, what is the point of those weapons?
Costa: One aspect of your game that is not often talked about is your mental fortitude. Perhaps it is taken for granted because you achieved so much. Did you ever think people thought you had it easy?
Karek: Well…when I turned pro at 15, I played with a great sense of abandon. I managed to win a lot of matches, which in turn gave me a great deal of confidence. Many players have a good or great first year. But fewer have a solid sophomore year. After a year on the tour, your opponents figure out your game. That mixed with the pressure to match the debut year puts great strain on a player. That somehow did not happen in my case. I guess that it was because I managed to carry the momentum of the first year forward.
Plus, here’s the thing. This could just be a figment of my imagination. But I felt that many at times I won matches even before I stepped on to the court. Something I guess that Serena Williams experienced. I would face an opponent who would be having a fantastic tournament. I would have seen him maul his opponent in the earlier round. But when this same guy faced me, he was so tentative; second-guessing his shots. I won so many matches thanks to this.
Costa: You on the other hand, always believed you were in the tournament as the favourite?
Karek: On the contrary, no. (laughs) This is the strange thing. There were tournaments where I played great tennis in the first two rounds. I am talking about slams here. I would be in a great zone mentally. I would think of myself as the hot favourite for the title. Then I would go ahead and play terrible tennis and would be out of the tournament. So I have learnt the hard way that when I over-estimate myself, I flounder. So I try to take one set at a time, if possible one game at a time. I know you guys hear all players say this, but believe me this is the best way. No point rehearsing your winner’s speech when you have not yet won the title.
Costa: Speaking of winning, pundits and fans alike are a little surprised with you not winning a slam in more than two years. How are you handling it? How have you recalibrated your expectations?
Karek: This might be hard to believe, but I have taken it in my stride In fact, better than I expected I would! Even in the initial years, perhaps when I started winning slams, I was aware that this success at slams will not last forever. If at the beginning of my career, someone told me that I would be playing close to 20 years, I would have signed up for the deal without any hesitation whatsoever. So, right now there is no severe heartache when I do not win slams. What’s important is that I am creating opportunities for myself. I am reaching semis and finals and giving myself chances to compete. I am enjoying the game, the competition and the new challenges. So I guess I have recalibrated my expectations. That is the realistic thing to do.
Costa: So how do you react to all those speculations about retirement? Though you have not hinted at it at all, tennis experts and enthusiasts seem to be wondering about it.
Karek: ….. I am well aware that I am closer to the end of my career rather than the beginning. I am saying this with no amount of bitterness; maybe a little sadness. But that is the fact. As I said earlier, I have nothing to prove to anyone. I am playing the game because I am enjoying it and I still think I can compete well. Plus, tennis is not like cricket or football. Your playing does not adversely impact someone else’s career. So I can play as long as I want without feeling guilty about it.
As for media, articles and blogs about retirement always garner attention. They never fail to generate buzz. People naturally gravitate towards them..like they gravitate towards ..say, obituary columns. It has been done to other sportsmen and I too am being subjected to it. No one escapes from them. I personally disliked them from the beginning. When I started, players like Uris and Alfonso were approaching retirement. There were articles guessing when they would retire and wondering why they even bothered to show up, let alone compete. I remember feeling terribly bad for them. I knew back then that my turn would come and here it has.
Ideally, one needs to just brush them aside and plug away. I think I am able to do it okay. For the record, I intend to play for another two years at least.
Costa: Speaking of competition, this year saw the emergence of some really interesting players. Some of them are being called potential grand slam champions. Who among these players do you see succeeding the most?
Karek: Well… There was never a dearth of quality upcoming players. It is like there is always some new flavour of the season. Some hype going around. Some justify the hype and some do not. Guess the game needs the attention. The bosses of the tour want the game to reach newer markets. Everyone wants a share of Asia and Africa these days. So if a couple of players come from those regions, it would generate interest in those areas. So the game can be better marketed there. Nothing wrong with that – it is just that it has all become highly commercial these days.
Over the past decade, I have seen many players who held a lot of promise and then somehow did not deliver. Some of them had genuine talent, but somehow could not deal with the pressure and attention. Some others had their careers ruined by injuries. So let’s see what the present crop of players deliver. If I have to pick players who I think will win multiple slams, I would go with Marco and Jonas.
Costa: So you have achieved so much; titles, accolades, fan base, fame and wealth. So is there something more you wish from the game?
Karek: Well, obviously I am still playing. I am in the top five in rankings. I am injury-free. So I hope to continue for as long as I can. This might come as a surprise, but I have not made post-tennis plans. My skills and acumen are linked to the game. So let’s see what’s in store. There is still time to worry about it.
On a tangential note, what irks me though is the media and, by extension, public obsession with all things new. The newer crop of players is hailed as potential all-time greats! What is the hurry? Let them really achieve something significant. Their shots are hailed as the best ever. That really gets my goat! Some of them are called the fittest ever. Have you even seen the guys in the 60s and 70s? They had tremendous stamina. Do any of these players today have the fitness and endurance of, say, Connors? I do not think so.
Costa: The media at large though does seem to like you. Plus you are popular on the social media sites as well. How do you think your relationship with them changed?
Karek: It has always been interesting. In the beginning I used to say whatever came to my mind and such interviews always got me into trouble. Like the time I said that I rarely give 100% in a match and my effort ranged between 70% and 90%. I thought I was being honest and truthful, but the media and tennis pundits lynched me. I then realized that it was one thing to be candid and another being candid without control. It was not okay to say certain things. So from that day onwards I kept things to myself. I gave stock answers. Mechanical responses. Said things people were accustomed to hearing. Come to think of it, it was simpler. I could close my eyes and rattle off the answers. I have learnt to be politically correct. It took a while though.
Costa: So what is Rumi Karek’s biggest fear?
Karek: That I would be forgotten; that history would not treat me kindly. Sports fans these days seem to remember and acknowledge only what they have seen the day before. Guess, it is a reflection of the world we are living in- very in-the-moment. We will see how things pan out.
Costa: I am sure no one who loves the game will ever forget you. Finally, what would you like to say to your fans?
Karek: Thank you. I would like to say…. tennis is a great game. Don’t just watch it. Pick up the racket and give it a shot. It’s fun. Then perhaps one can understand that the shots that appear elementary and easy on TV are not actually so.
Costa: Thank you for taking time and speaking to me today. See you in Barcelona at the award ceremony.
Karek: Thank you, Lara. Good day.
Rumi checked his watch and smiles. The time was 11.43am. He told her that he would have offered her lunch if he was not leaving for the airport for his annual year-end vacation. She responded that next time she would hold him to it, and left. Rumi went to his bedroom and looked keenly at his racket bag. He would not need it for a month at least. He would forget all about tennis and pamper himself. Tennis can wait. It was not going anywhere and neither was he.