What are the odds that, within a span of 24 hours, three of the most celebrated sportspersons ever will walk off a sporting arena with the unquantifiable zero hanging against their names? That, within a couple of 100 kilometres of one another, in different disciplines at major global tournaments, they will have failed to trouble the scorers, as they say? And yet, such is the aura and volume of extraordinary work this trio has strung together that ‘zero’ assumes a whole new significance when it suffixes their performances.
Zero is at once a number, and a numerical digit which is also representative of that number. It is an additive identity, a placeholder. The world doesn’t entirely revolve around zero – or 0 – but we can’t even imagine a world without it. Zero chance, if you like.
It can safely be assumed that not one of Novak Djokovic, AB de Villiers or Virat Kohli is currently interested in the origins and import of that particular number. And yet, here we are, linking the tennis great and two of cricket’s all-time top guns to that number, to that numeral, to that digit.
First to Wednesday (June 7), to Djokovic, to the red clay of Paris, to Roland Garros, to the home of the French Open. The Serb who once ruled the tennis world with an iron fist, but has since fallen on hard times – by his lofty standards, not our journeymen ones – scrapped and battled and clawed his way to the quarterfinals, striving desperately to defend the only Grand Slam title he then held. In the last eight awaited Dominic Thiem, a wonderfully gifted Austrian who had defeated Rafael Nadal in Rome a couple of weeks previously, only to be pummelled 6-1, 6-0 by Djokovic a day later.
After a tight first set tiebreak in Paris, Djokovic faded away. Rolled over. Capitulated. Surrendered. People rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Was this the same man who, armed with a gluten-free diet and no apparent weaknesses, had dominated tennis for nearly four years? Was this the one who went toe to toe with Nadal in the Australian Open final a couple of years ago, the last man standing after five hours and 53 minutes of gut-spilling, emotion-wrenching action? Oh wait, who is this guy who looks like Djokovic, walks like him, but plays like he couldn’t care less? Where is the passion, the drive, the desire, the quest for perfection, the soul of a champion? How could he lose the third set 6-0? This just can’t be Novak Djokovic, can it?
Sadly, it was. Sadly, because this wasn’t the Djokovic we had come to learn to grudgingly admire, even us Nadal fans. There was no joy in watching him walk vacantly between points, his mind up in the clouds or wherever even as the scoreboard showed him down in the dumps. 7-6, 6-3, 6-0. ‘Bagelled’, in tennis parlance, in the final set of a match for only the second time in nearly 1000 career matches, and for just the first time in a Grand Slam since 2005, when he was an 18-year-old kid looking to make a name for himself.
How could Djokovic, who will go out of the top-two on Monday for the first time in six years, not win a single game in a set, no matter how extraordinarily brilliantly his opponent might have played? Because, Mac the Mouth John McEnroe explained, he didn’t try hard enough – that he ‘tanked’ the set. ‘Tank city’, the one-time enfant terrible said dismissively, openly voicing an opinion that most other watchers must have shared. Djokovic losing a set 0-6 was shocking enough; how do you even begin to describe watching him lose a set 0-6 like it didn’t hurt him, like his pride wasn’t stung?
A few hours later, a similar – and yet completely different – fate befell de Villiers. South Africa’s One-Day International captain was dismissed first ball, a golden duck, in his team’s eventual Champions Trophy loss to Pakistan at Edgbaston. It was the first time he had fallen first ball in ODI cricket; sometimes, it is hard to believe that he too is just human, and not Superman as we romantics tend to believe.
A day later, at The Oval, Djokovic and de Villiers found company in Kohli, the Indian captain who was also de Villiers’s skipper at Royal Challengers Bangalore. Kohli lasted four further deliveries than AB baby, caught behind off Nuwan Pradeep. It was his first ODI duck since 2014, his first ever nought in 43 innings in all ICC events – the World Cup, the Champions Trophy, the World T20. It rounded off an eminently forgettable, yet memorable, hat-trick of no-scores, each of those zeroes culminating in defeat.
The de Villiers and Kohli ducks are mere statistical observations. A zero for even the best batsmen isn’t as uncommon as 0-6 in tennis for someone of Djokovic’s stature. For all its reputation as a batsman’s game, cricket is still a one-ball game for the batsman. One poor stroke, one stunning piece of fielding, one slice of the worst luck, one poor umpiring decision – in the absence of the DRS – is enough to negate hours of assiduous preparation. The chances of a duck in cricket are infinitesimally higher than those of a bagel in tennis. But that will come as scant consolation for the de Villiers and the Kohlis, still intensely driven and committed and proud and unforgiving of self – traits that seemed to have deserted Djokovic at Roland Garros earlier in the week.
In sport, in everything actually, zero is effectively the starting point – as the numbers keep adding up, it is generally considered a sign of progress and growth, unless of course you are playing golf in which case you are worse off at, say, +1 (bogey) than at 0 (even par). Zero is the point of reference as much as it is a number; it is the start of the state of being, but it is not where you want to remain stagnant.Unless, of course, you are Geoff Allott. The New Zealand left-arm paceman, at No. 11, batted 101 minutes and faced 77 deliveries without opening his account, eventually falling to Jacques Kallis in the Auckland Test of 1999. It meant the Kiwis had at least 25 less overs to negotiate in the second innings after being forced to follow-on, and eventually escaped with what is generally regarded as an honourable draw.
The most famous duck in Test cricket? Unquestionably the one against the name of inarguably the greatest cricketer ever. Don Bradman arrived at the crease in his last Test innings needing four runs for a Test average of 100 and an aggregate of 7000 runs. Eric Hollies sent him off, second ball, to leave him stranded on 99.94 and 6996 respectively. Oh the power of zero, unforgiving zero, not swayed by stature and reputation, nor by stage and occasion.