Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on live video on Instagram
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on live video on Instagram
Screen grabbed from video

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal got talking on Instagram last week, which virtually crashed the internet. Speaking of this, that and lots more, they had netizens lapping up every word with relish. The same day, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic spoke to each other, making it a treat for tennis buffs overall.

The four finest tennis players of this generation are usually seen only in competition where they are ranged against each. At this level, the desire to win is all consuming, leaving little time for niceties and pleasantries, except after a match has been completed. This was a huge departure from normal and had the world transfixed.

India’s tennis legends Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi too had a protracted pow-wow on Twitter, posting videos of each other’s volleying skills. There was mutual backslapping, of course, but also good fun as they also put their wit to test against each other.

Paes and Bhupathi, once the world’s top-ranked doubles pair and multiple Grand Slam winners, had fallen out bitterly more than two decades ago. To see their bonhomie now, share memories and mutual accolades, would have been a delight for Indian tennis fans.

Tennis players, however, have not been an exception in exposing themselves to the world this extraordinary season. With the threat from COVID-19 still persisting, and as the planet remains in lockdown mode, all kinds of sportspersons have been finding ways and ruses to keep themselves amused, engaged.

That the best sportspersons would take to opening up so readily has been the stuff of dreams for sports fans. This kind of interaction has brought the megastars – otherwise enveloped in their own aura and guarded zealously by managers and PR persons – up close and personal.

What’s enabling this is two things. One obviously is the free time that these athletes now have on their hands. Like all of us, sports superstars are also human, and never more so when there is a global crisis like this pandemic. They are also feeling the loss of `normalcy’, and trying in whichever way to find this, however quirkily.

But for COVID-19, most sportspersons, if not all, would have been jetting around the globe playing tournaments, and when not, training for the next assignment or making ‘special appearances’ as part of their persona building exercise. Indulging in such exchanges on social media, even with fellow players, was unlikely.

Currently everybody is grounded, trying to cope with boredom and/or anxiety. These kinds of interactions provide much needed relief. It helps stay you connected with your world. This works as a booster shot to cope with isolation, for nobody knows how long the lockdown period will last.

The second factor making these conversations possible is technology which has created platforms on which players not only talk to each other and share their thoughts, but can also see each other. And with them, so can their followers, fans, and the world at large.

This is important to understand in two aspects. Human responses differ from mere sound to audio-visual expression. When one talks to somebody one can see, the flavour is most likely different than when it is just a voice at the other end. It hardly needs explaining that a video conversation is infinitely more personalised.

By extension, this also makes a difference to the audience. For instance, if there was just the audio of a telephone chat between say Rohit Sharma and Yuvraj Singh, while always interesting, it wouldn’t invite as much attention as seeing both of them in person, on your laptop or cellphone.

Fans are always keen to get as near their stars physically (which is difficult in itself) and also trying to understand their mindset, which is perhaps even more difficult since they rarely come through without interlocutors and managers as interventionists. In the context, seeing two superstars explore each other’s personality is a double bonanza

Hearing Nadal and Federer live on Instagram was like having a peephole into their homes and minds. True, there is a large amount of banal stuff that is being thrown up. But as more time elapses, many of these interactions are going beyond the perfunctory “How are you?’’, “Trust you are doing well, catch up soon’’ etc.

The online conversation between India’s young women cricket stars Jemimah Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana with badminton ace P V Sindhu was quite stellar I thought. It wasn’t loaded with platitudes. Sure, there was some of that. But there were other pertinent issues discussed, like the problems women sportspersons face, which one doesn’t come across often.

There are various facets of sports and sports personalities that are emerging in this lockdown period. There is loads of priceless nostalgia that is being discussed and shared with audiences. Many sportspersons are also into off-beat pursuits (for them) like cooking, which has found a lot of traction.

Several of these exchanges have become sharper, many provoking thought, some even leading to controversies. Overall, they’ve been enriching, allowing people to understand sports and sportspersons better. Till action on the field resumes, this has been a boon for fans.

The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.

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