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Surgeries in 2005 and the next year took him out of the game for a spell and brought with them an epiphany. During his recovery from the second surgery, he took part, unannounced, in a couple of friendly games, away from the spotlight and with hardly any spectators. For the first time in years, playing was just plain fun. Competing for India had become "so much about commitment and pressure and doing things correctly," he says, he'd forgotten to enjoy himself. Those practice games, he now says, were "a game changer for me."
And it showed. Back in national colors, he demonstrated a new gusto for batsmanship that disheartened bowlers everywhere as much as it thrilled spectators: his stunning 154 against world champions Australia at the start of 2008 may be his finest performance ever. The records came fast and thick: most runs, most centuries. Riding on a rejuvenated Tendulkar, India for the first time became the world's No. 1 team, and last summer the country went nuts when the team won the World Cup on home soil. During the victory lap, teammates hoisted Tendulkar, their top scorer for the tournament with 482 runs, on their shoulders. "Sachin has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years," said up-and-coming star Virat Kohli. "It was our turn to carry him on our shoulders."
Ton of Pressure
No sooner had the fireworks died down, however, than pressure began to mount again on Tendulkar: he'd scored his 99th century during the World Cup, lighting up South Africa for 111 runs, and his countrymen wanted him to go past that new milestone. Wherever he went, he was asked when he'd score the ton of tons. The rest of the team suffered a dramatic slump in form, losing its No. 1 status to England. Criticism centered, unfairly or not, on Tendulkar. At 38, he was long in the tooth for a pro cricketer; wouldn't the honorable thing be to retire gracefully?
Those questions preyed on Tendulkar's mind, making it harder and harder to get into the zone. He came tantalizingly close to the ton a couple of times and claimed, implausibly, not to be especially stressed by the quest. But it was a full year before the 100th came, in Dhaka against Bangladesh, the final run coming in an easy single rather than a thumping blow; afterward, he admitted to feeling "50 kilos lighter."
So what now for the Master Blaster? Twenty-two years is a long span in any sport. When I ask him to sign a copy of that 1999 TIME cover, he adds a tongue-in-cheek inscription, "Time flies!" He may not want to talk about the R word, but he turned 39 in April, so speculation about his plans will only grow. Several members of the great Indian team of the 2000s have hung up their gloves. In April, he was nominated to the upper house of India's Parliament, the equivalent of Britain's House of Lords. The position is mostly ceremonial, and it's hard to imagine it will turn into a long-term career: Mr. Nice Guy seems ill-suited to the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics. And anyway, "the Honorable Sachin Tendulkar" seems a steep demotion from god.
The traditional postplaying career of TV punditry would likely be too small-bore for someone with an estimated net worth of $115 million. And his value as a national pick-me-up is waning. High on economic success, India may no longer need a dose of Tendulkar to feel good. "India's self-confidence, which he helped to build, is now strong enough to cope without Sachin," says Guha. "There is life in India after Sachin, but I don't know what life for Sachin can be after cricket."
Unless there is more cricket. Freed of the huge weight of expectations he has carried for much of his career, the world's greatest athlete can now pursue a pure enjoyment of the sport he has enriched. History suggests an unburdened Tendulkar is a prolific Tendulkar, especially if he continues to unravel the mysteries of the zone. The satisfaction of reaching the zone is personal and intense, he says, even when there's no winning outcome. He then quickly adds, "But I would want an outcome." A world-class player can tolerate nothing less. So everybody please pipe down and let him play.