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Caution! Invincibles falling

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RONALDINHO There is no player in the last decade who not only influenced the game but also delighted voyeurs the world over like Ronaldinho. He was just one of the upstarts in Paris Saint-Germain where the Parisian nightlife left an indelible impression on the young player. A change at the top in Barcelona turned things around and Ronaldinho became their prize catch under coach Frank Rijkaard. In between, he helped Brazil win the World Cup, literally with a single run down the middle against England. Three fantastic years followed like a dream. Jinks, dribbles, and free-kicks made the beautifully ugly striker the icon of Barcelona and the world. People started talking about the return of the golden age in Catalonia, thanking Ronaldinho for heralding it. However, good things don't last long and the failure at the 2006 World Cup didn't have its desired effect on the magician. The nights became longer, training sessions shorter and the air in the Barca dressing room hung heavy. Soon the Brazilian's happy days were numbered. A move to AC Milan didn't really help, and love of the good life denied him a Brazil shirt in South Africa.

In sport, sudden turns don't come with a warning, unlike red-lettered road signs that say: curves ahead, drive slowly. In a world governed by the rule book, sneaky, blind corners, tucked into the circuits of the summit, have chewed and spat out many a great sporting career. When athletes are on a seemingly invincible plane, unbeatable and invulnerable, sporting Gods conspire to deal out tricky cards - mean, mocking and engineered to make mortals of marvels.

The blind corners hold many surprises, none of them pleasant. Fate handed Ayrton Senna, the fury and focus of Formula One in the late 80s and early 90s, sudden death. It was fatigue - mental and physical - that forced Bjorn Borg and Michael Jordan into early first retirements. For Marion Jones, Hansie Cronje and Mike Tyson it was human frailties - greed and lust. Ditto for Tiger Woods. The American's was perhaps the biggest sporting fall of the new millennium.

Late in November last year when America was fast asleep, Woods crashed his SUV - a Cadillac Escalade - into a hedge, a fire hydrant, and a tree down the street from his house. The ace golfer was treated for 'minor facial laceration' and cited for careless driving. There was no swab, however, to dab away the damage of his actions of the past few years that culminated in that otherwise harmless crash. What started off as news of an accident turned into a vulgar circus of infidelities with everyone from strippers to socialites and street walkers having stories to tell. In the weeks that followed some reports claimed that Woods had confessed to 120 affairs to his wife, including one with a daughter of a neighbour whom he had known since she was 14.
Reports of Woods' wild swings were popping quicker than corn in a microwave;the end result being a buttered carton of affairs, orgies and drugs.

Woods was not merely the highest paid professional athlete in the world but his was also the most loved story - a coloured man ruling a white domain. As it turned out, it was an intricately woven web of personal weakness and professional arrogance that had trapped the ace American golfer. Brand Tiger took a beating and his stock plumetted. As a clutch of sponsors either severed ties or distanced themselves from the image that was once an advertisers' dream, the 34-year-old announced an indefinite break from the game.

Earlier this year, Woods stated that he would return to competitive golf at the 2010 Augusta Masters in April. In his comeback event, after nearly 20 weeks in self-imposed exile, Woods tied fourth, raising visions of a promising season ahead. The slip, however, showed quickly enough. In his next tournament, the Quail Hollow Championship, he missed the cut for just the sixth time in his career. Last month, Woods finished tied 23rd in the British Open. The American, once a constant threat come Sunday at just about any event he competed in, has only been in two such tournament-winning situations in the eight tournaments he has played in this season.

From front runner to journeyman is a difficult slip. For the numero unos, however, if it is not No. 1 the other figures on the scale are just relative factors, mostly meaningless.

Tennis great Roger Federer, a player designed by divinity, was well on his way to claim the coveted badge of GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) when a Spanish upstart named Rafael Nadal, who returned tennis balls with such furious passion, started asking too many uncomfortable questions. One more, Roger, one more every time: Even on the King's favourite lawns. Nadal's nailing of Federer that has given him a 14-7 lead in career meetings doesn't by itself win Nadal the tag of GOAT. He's still quite some distance from it. But besides what the victories have done for the 24-year-old's status in the sport, Nadal's charge has put some serious hurdles in Federer's path.

The sudden turns are like quicksand in a desert, impossible to see. It's the ultimate leveller and the truest testament that sport has to the Biblical line: to whom much is given, of him shall much be required. Fittingly, some of the sporting world's greatest achievers like Michael Jordan have given monumental replies in their comeback. The NBA superstar came out of retirement to repeat the threepeat for the Chicago Bulls that stunned opponents and brought fans to their feet. Countryman Greg Louganis was equally convincing in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. The American had earlier won gold in the springboard and tower diving events in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In Seoul he suffered a concussion after hitting his head on the springboard while performing a reverse 2

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