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  • Writer's pictureThirty30 Tennis

Rafa Nadal – A true champion in every sense of the word

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

An interesting article (extract) from The Times (12 December 2017) by Matthew Syed.

Bad losers like Jose Mourinho drag us towards anarchy

Rafael Nadal was crushed and exhausted after his first-round defeat by Steve Darcis, the world No 135, at Wimbledon in 2013. The Spaniard had just captured a record eighth French Open title. Everyone expected him to win. It was one of the most shocking reverses in grand-slam history, and you could see in that boyish face the anguish of defeat. And yet it is what happened afterwards that has always stayed with me.

Nadal had evidenced discomfort on court. He was not badly injured, but enough to give his opponent an edge. When he was repeatedly asked about this in his post-match press conference, however, he deflected the questions. Nadal didn’t wish discussion of an injury to overshadow a fine victory by his opponent. “It is not the right day [to talk about it],” he said. “I tried my best out there in every moment. The only thing that I can say today is to congratulate Steve Darcis. He played a fantastic match. Everything that I will say today about my knee is an excuse, and I don’t like to put [forward] any excuse when I’m losing a match like I lost today. He deserves not one excuse.”

Nadal is one of sport’s great winners. He has compiled 16 grand-slam and 59 further ATP titles. But he has another quality that is, to my mind, even more precious. He is a gracious loser. After an epic five-set defeat by Gilles Müller at this year’s Wimbledon, he waited patiently for his opponent to pack his bag, and then signed autographs for fans. He congratulated Roger Federer generously after defeat in the final of this year’s Australian Open. Like other great champions such as Jack Nicklaus and Billie Jean King, he embodies Rudyard Kipling’s line about treating the “two impostors just the same”.

My fear is that this is a quality we are losing. Slowly but surely, the most important lesson taught by sport is ceding ground. Defeat is met with bitterness, with recrimination, with bad-mouthing and, increasingly, particularly in football, the impugning of the judgment and integrity of the officials. We see anger, disputation, personal invective, bad-tempered press conferences, contempt for interviewers and, more generally, an attempt to blame everyone except oneself.

José Mourinho, arguably the most high-profile manager in the world, is at the forefront of this shift. He is a serial winner, and a fine tactical manager, but sets an egregious example. We do not know for sure what triggered a mass brawl after Manchester United’s defeat by Manchester City, but we do know that witnesses claim to have seen Mourinho entering the City dressing room to berate his opponents. We also know that he described a valid penalty decision by the referee as “an important mistake” and characterised City’s celebrations (who wouldn’t celebrate after a derby victory?) as evidence of a lack of “diversity” and “education”.

Such antics didn’t start with Mourinho. There have been bad losers since time began. But my sense is that we are reaching a tipping point where this kind of behaviour is no longer met with distaste, but with acceptance. I have read all too often that petulance in defeat shows that you care. That you have a competitive mindset. This could not be farther from the truth. The desire to win is measured by vigour and mettle, not by a willingness to impugn the referee or barrack one’s opponents. Losing ungraciously doesn’t reveal a winning mentality; it reveals crass juvenility. It also reveals a tendency, when scaled up to society, that is perilous. For a willingness to accept the outcome of a contest, even when you don’t like the result, is the cornerstone of the rule of law. It underpins free societies. It represents the essence of democracy, perhaps the most surprising and beautiful innovation in our species’ modern history. For how can power transfer peacefully from one party to another when the holder of that power refuses to accept the result of a fair contest?

And that is another nagging worry. The seminal value of defeat is that it provides a precious opportunity to learn. Blaming the umpire, the referee, the electorate, or whatever, makes it far less likely that one will look, squarely and honestly, at oneself. What can I do to improve? Could we have used better tactics against Manchester City? Should we revisit our transfer policy? Losing is not the end; on the contrary, it is the beginning of the inner dialogue upon which progress depends.

Some will brush Mourinho’s antics aside as a strategic attempt to deflect criticism from his team’s poor display, but it represents a deeper pathology. A critical mass of football managers, not to mention other sporting figures, greets defeat not with the class of Nadal but with the crassness of a spoilt child. So prevalent has it become that we are increasingly inured to the dangers. To lose is not to disgrace oneself. To lose is to live. We all fail, we all fall short. The real disgrace is not to lose; it is to lose ungraciously.

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