June 4, 2009 12:24:51 am
When Roger Federer lost the Australian Open final in January,he cried his eyes out.
When Tiger Woods fell away at the Augusta Masters in April,he stormed off the course in disgust and blamed his band-aid swing.
When LeBron Jamess Cleveland Cavaliers lost to Orlando Magic in the NBAs Eastern Conference finals in May,he refused to shake hands with his opponents,saying he couldnt bear to congratulate a team that had beaten him,because he was a winner.
But when the long-haired,bicep-kissing,ever-grimacing Rafael Nadal lost this Sunday on the red clay he loves so dearly,he had a forgotten message to convey in broken English: I have to accept with the same calm when I win that when I lose. After four years,I lose here,and the season continues.
Grace is a rare commodity in sport these days. Often mistaken for weakness,for a lack of hunger,its virtue has gotten lost somewhere in the by-lanes of a land where champions are cold,ruthless mercenaries in pursuit of perfection; where the bar is raised by a nanometre each year; and where the mind must be without fear but the head neednt be held high.
In the middle of this strange world weve created,Nadals attitude at Roland Garros came as a sweet surprise. Here he was,going for an unprecedented fifth consecutive title in the toughest of all Grand Slams,the odds-on favourite,but he could still channel his disappointment into graceful praise for his victor,into explaining to his shocked fans and the anxious media that life would indeed go on. Instead of being consoled,Nadal was the one doing the comforting.
You cannot collapse,either because youve won a match or because youve lost it. This is sport,and you can have victories or defeats. No one remembers defeats in the long run. People remember victories. Defeats never make you grow,but you also realise how difficult what I achieved up until today was,and this is something you need sometimes. You need a defeat to give value to your victories, he said in a post-match press conference that is usually the venue for bland banalities,showing he had chosen to take from his loss a philosophical lesson about life as a sportsman.
In a tennis world divided between two colossal talents,the rift between fans of Federer and Nadal is growing even more rapidly than their rivalry is evolving. They are compared on everything their forehand,backhand,athleticism,will to win,their mastery of each surface,their on and off-field demeanour; Elegance vs Grit,Genius vs Labour,Beauty vs the Beast.
But for all the mesmerising shots in Federers arsenal,for all the sublime talent at his disposal,it seemed over the last year that he needed something more,something extra,something entirely unique to break out of the hold that Nadal had over him. Even his most ardent fans did not expect him to win in France,not because of his relative frailty on clay but because of Nadals total domination of the surface,and of Federer himself.
It was in such a scenario,where just a matter of another whipping of Federer seemed to stand between Nadal and the title,that the Spaniard was felled by Swedens Robin Soderling,with whom he has an interesting history. Nadals grief wouldve been tremendous as his shield of invincibility was breached once and for all. And that is why his gesture of humility after the loss becomes more significant at a time when teams racially abuse each other,when players slap one another,and when a former England cricket captain rants about the drawbacks of rap music and multicultural societies.
In defeat,Nadal showed this week that he has all the ingredients of a true champion. If Federer goes on to win the title he wants more than any other,the greatest-ever badge pinned on his chest will rest more legitimately. But with six Grand Slam wins before his 23rd birthday (which was yesterday),Nadal may not end up too far behind by the time he calls it a day.
And if he doesnt reach the heights his great Swiss rival has already scaled,we can rest assured that he will neither weep nor rant about it.
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