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Sports, as in life, requires the 3Ds — dedication, devotion and determination — but above all it requires immense willingness to sacrifice to achieve the goal. The big-earning sports star are the envy of many for the high-flying lifestyles and the accolades that they garner, but just spare a thought for them, who can’t lead a normal life like any of us. Imagine someone working in a corporate set-up and had to work 24/7 every single week of the year leaving their families and friends behind. I am sure many would complain of stress and fatigue, but these stars go about their tasks wholeheartedly every single day, rain or shine. Unless there is a major injury, they live with niggles and consider them as part of their lives. How do they do it? It comes from the passion that they hold towards their given sport and the will to excel in their chosen field. Sometimes they go to extremes and continue even at risk to their own lives. This year’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships had a few of examples. Kim Clijsters and Sania Mirza returned to competitive tennis after motherhood and Simona Halep and Leander Paes are perfect role-models for an aspiring athletes. Here, Gulf News takes a look at some athletes who have gone to the extremes to pursue their goals, which made them the champions they are.
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Simona Halep: We have heard people willing to give an arm and leg to achieve something in the world of sport but usually that is metaphorical. Halep, the World No. 2 tennis player, as a teenager in 2009, took the biggest step of sacrificing her body to achieve success. The Romanian took the bold decision of opting for breast-reduction surgery to help her improve her game as her 34DD chest size was impeding her progress. “It’s the weight that troubles me. My ability to react quickly, my breasts make me uncomfortable when I play,” Halep said. The sacrifice paid dividends and her performance improved to reach the top ranking in 2017 and a total of 20 WTA Tour titles with the latest coming in Dubai last month. When Halep was asked in a Sports Illustrated interview what was the biggest sacrifice that she had made to reach the top of her sport, she said: “I think my surgery in 2009. When I did it, I did it for tennis.”
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Anil Kumble: The Indian leg-spinner showed his lion heart to the world that he can take a blow on the chin gamely but still cannot be floored completely. Kumble was hit on the chin by a rising delivery by Mervyn Dillion during the fourth Test against West Indies in Antigua in 2002 but, despite spitting out blood, he batted bravely to help India post 513-9. It doesn’t end there. Kumble insisted on taking the field while bowling. With a bandage that was put by physio to avoid the jaw from moving, the leg-spinner bowled 14 overs with gusto to get the prized wicket of Brian Lara before leaving the tour to Bengaluru for surgery. “I didn’t want to sit around. At least I can now go home with the thought that I tried my best,” he said then despite the Test meandering into a draw. His grand show is so legendary that recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred that incident while talking to students ahead of the Board exams and said: “Similarly, who can forget Kumble bowling with an injury. This is the power of motivation and positive thinking,” Modi added.
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Kerri Strug: Just imagine trying to compete on a bust ankle — as a gymnast. How painful must could be. American Strug could not move nor feel her leg due to an injury suffered earlier in the daya the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Needing one final vault for the United States to clinch gold, Strug, part of America’s magnificent seven, was asked by her personal coach Bela Karolyi to “shake it out. Shake it out. Give me one last good vault”. Strug, who was in deep trouble with the foot even during her previous attempt, could have opted to quit and US could have still won the gold. But the 19-year-old wanted to script the golden saga. “Everybody was telling me I can do it, but I don’t think they realised I was in so much pain. I decided to let the adrenalin take over,” Strug said, whose foot was in a splint and a wrap. She completed vault with a of 9.712, guaranteeing the Americans the gold medal, but her condition was so bad that her coach Karolyi had to carry her to the awards ceremony.
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Serena Williams: She is a known fighter. Many an occasion the American has brought her rivals to submission with her sheer power and authority on the tennis court. She was winning even if she was half good as she could be but what she achieved in the Australian Open was something extraordinary. Serena won her most recent Grand Slam title when she was eight weeks pregnant. Yes, you heard that right, eight weeks pregnant and on her way to the title she did not even drop a single set — proof of her unflinching mental and physical attributes to pursue her passion and achieve success. And in the final, Serena defeated her big sister Venus in straight sets 6-4, 6-4 and eventually regained the world No. 1 ranking to clinch her 23rd Grand Slam title, surpassing Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 titles. Though she could not realise her dream of surpassing Margaret Court’s record Grand Slam haul of 24 titles on her comeback from the motherhood, don’t discount the gutsy American to reach the target before hanging up her rackets for good.
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Leander Paes: After collapsing while retrieving a ball during the doubles tournament in Cincinnati, the Indian tennis ace’s never-say-die attitude allowed him to fight on in a losing cause back in 2003. Later Paes, who had been suffering from severe headache for a while before the match, initially was suspected with lesion in his brain. But after some anxious wait, M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre confirmed that Paes was suffering from neurocysticercosis, a parasitic infection that attacks the central nervous system. It should have come as a major blow to the 1996 bronze medallist, who had won the Australian Open and the Wimbledon mixed doubles titles joining hands with legendary Martina Navratilova that year, and it happened just before the start of the US Open. Navratilova said in a statement then that she would not compete until Paes was healthy because “he is a true partner, and the special connection we share cannot be replaced. Our bond was much more than winning titles, and my thoughts are with this wonderful man for a speedy and full recovery”. Paes recovered and began to play by the end of the year. He resolved any doubts about him regaining his abilities by winning many titles and medals. Now, he is on a farewell tour #OneLastRoar in Dubai as he walks into the sunset after turning a pro in 1991.
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Virat Kohli: Champions are born and not made is the adage. Kohli is a classic example to live up to the sobriquet. In December 2006, as an 18-year-old Kohli was batting on 40 against Karnataka and his team Delhi in dire straits at 105-4 in the Indian domestic league. There was plenty of responsibility on the young shoulders to carry his team to safety the following day. Something unexpected happened overnight. His ailing father passed away, aged 54. A tearful Kohli conveyed the news to his coach Rajkumar Sharma, who was in Sydney at that moment and asked him what to do. Fast forward. The following day at 7.30am when his Delhi teammates walked in for the third day’s play, a determined Kohli was already waiting ready to put on his pads and take his guard for a fresh start to the innings and his life without his pillar of support. The current Indian captain left his teammates in awe by scoring 90 and saving his team. If you see an animated Kohli, who doesn’t hesitate to show his emotions openly, it must be stemming from his passion for the sport.
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Tiger Woods: The man who changed the landscape of the golfing world with his fitness, youthful exuberance, athleticism and energy. The popularity the sport enjoys today is mainly due to him and the roaring success that he encountered over a period of time. But nothing comes easy unless one works hard for it and it’s true in Woods’ case as well. The American won the US Open in 2008 virtually with one leg, after undergoing a surgery knee surgery in April. Ignoring doctors’ orders, who said he could do a permanent damage to his knee, in June 2008 Woods played with a fracture and torn anterior cruciate ligaments. Despite grimacing in pain during the entire four days he clinched his 14th Major title, but had to pay a heavy price as he had to miss the rest of the season. The Major win at Torrey Pines was his last before he broke a long drought by winning the 2019 Masters at Augusta.
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Steve Smith: The Australian finished the year 2017 as the ICC Player of the Year and was part of the ICC Test team. The new year did not begin the way Smith had expected against South Africa. His below-par performance did not help Australia’s cause in the Test series and then something strange happened. Dependable Smith, vice-captain David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were caught for ball-tampering and the skipper and Warner were slapped with a one-year ban. Smith’s world from the top came crashing down and during the ban, he lost his captaincy. After cooling his heels, Smith returned for the World Cup and then the Ashes series against England in 2019. The gritty right-hander proved that form is temporary and class is permanent by scoring centuries in both innings of the first Test at Edgbaston. Smith was reborn. But in the first innings of the second Test, when on 80, he was hit behind the ear by an 148.7km/h bouncer from Jofra Archer, his Rajasthan Royals teammate in the Indian Premier League, and had to retire midway through his innings. Though he resumed the knock and was out for 92, he had actually suffered concussion when he was hit and became the first player in Test history to be replaced by a concussion substitute. After missing the third Test, Smith again returned for the fourth and scored a double century, crossing 500 runs in the series and reclaiming the world No. 1 ranking.
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Andy Murray: Murray is and was Britain’s knight in shining armour. He was part of the Fab Four (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic being the others) that held their own, winning almost all the Grand Slam titles over a period of two decades. But when the Scot beat all odds to end a long Grand Slam drought for Britain, fate gave a new twist to his career. After winning the Dubai Duty Free Men’s title in 2017, the former world No. 1’s career spiralled down due to multiple injuries, the major one being the hip injury and underwent a surgery in January 2018. A few months later, his comeback was short-lived and had to pull out of Wimbledon with a heavy heart. Murray took part in a few events without success and decided to undergo another surgery in 2019 to give himself another chance of playing the sport that he loved the most. In January last year, he underwent the knife and resurfaced his hip with metal in a painful procedure. On return, he tasted success in the Queen’s Club by winning the doubles, partnering Feliciano Lopez for his first title in two years. Later, Murray defeated Stanislas Wawrinka in the final to win the European Open. However, now the Briton may need another operation to remove bone growth associated with the surgery and is expected to return to action by March-end in Miami. “I have not had lots of clarity as to what the issue actually is, because it is difficult to tell,” he told the British media recently. “What I need to do just now is build up in these next couple of weeks to really test it. Hopefully, it responds fine. I should know by the end of next month whether I’m good to play with it.”
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Yuvraj Singh: The talented left-hander could be rated as one of the unluckiest of sportsmen. When he is fit, his form would desert him and when he is in top form, he would end up with an injury. The fighter that he is, Yuvraj has made several comebacks by proving his detractors wrong. He became a permanent member of the limited-overs squad, and why shouldn’t he, when he can clobber six sixes in one over? The Punjab all-rounder, who was on top of his game during the World Cup 2011 and was the man of the tournament, was at the non-striker end when skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni hit the winning six against Sri Lanka in the final in Mumbai, ending a 27-year wait for the second 50-over World Cup. But what followed turned Yuvraj’s life upside down. He was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his lungs, and recovered after chemotherapy. He again returned to the field, as a completely different man with a different outlook to life overall, and continued to play until 2019 when he announced his retirement from cricket. Yuvi Strong is an inspiration for many who are battling cancer.
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