In win-obsessed world, Nadal offered education in defeat

Joan Solsona is painting a competitive picture. Rafael Nadal, he beckons me to imagine, is skipping stones across the water. A friend is winning this idle competition, so Nadal cannot stop. His compulsion is to be the better man.

"He has to be a winner," says Solsona, "otherwise it's like he cannot sleep. If he doesn't win, everyone must keep playing. In golf, it is the same. These are his hobbies, imagine what he is like in tennis, his professional life."

My conversation with Solsona - a Spanish journalist who has known Nadal since he was 12 - occurs an hour before the Australian Open final last Sunday as I try to comprehend Nadal's urge to win. If his appetite for victory suggests a primitive stone-age man with a club, it also makes him a more evolved competitor than his peers. Yet this idea is transplanted after the final by a even more baffling consideration. If winning is so essential to his being, how does he lose so well?

That Nadal fought on against Stanislas Wawrinka was an answering to the coding of his DNA. Expected you might think, yet fellow athletes, who understand effort better than us, swooned. Joel Selwood, an Australian Rules football captain, from a physically brutal sport, tweeted: "Would love #Nadal as a team-mate!" But if Nadal had quit, this might have been understandable. Accosted again by injury he was agonised by it, but never let it win. This victory he didn't allow.

He played on for he answered another code, a worthy, unwritten one, that demands you complete a match. To finish is to not hand the other man an amputated victory and in effect you are honouring the man who is destroying you. But if Nadal said he did this for Wawrinka, and the fans, he also did it "for me". To finish is to practise not giving up, it is to give yourself a chance - Wawrinka might have collapsed - and it is later a reflection of who he is: the man who gave everything. Or else is nothing.

Sainthood is not on offer in athletic arenas for to expect it is to strip sport of its different complexions and to misunderstand its madness. If we are hostile in the stands, imagine the middle. Imagine the fury, the exhaustion, the want. The athlete is immersed, even lost, often deaf, in this reactive, instinctive world of no respite. That he can think clearly is staggering, that he might hurl an unsavoury epithet at himself or a toss a racket is human.

Yet as much as we relish the mercurial man, we must marvel at how Nadal kept a hold of himself while his world fell apart. There is unkind chatter over his medical time-out as a calculated ploy - a tennis version of football's diver - but if he returned immediately to 195kmh serves and unaffected sprints then a case might be made. But no, he was hurt, it was evident, and the issue instead was his ability to reach into a decency when the moment was uniquely indecent to him.

The endurance of Nadal lies not in miles run but conversely in days of sitting idle as the instrument that is his body was being repaired. He endured pain in the knees, he endured frustration as other men rose while he had fallen, he endured even as his stationary life reversed the very idea of his existence.

Everything must be rebuilt, over months, first body, then movement, then precision, then hope, and then another body part, this time the back, mutinies. You want to smash every racket at this bullying by life - why me, why again - yet after the match, with no time for calmness to settle, Nadal says: "Just a tough day. But lot of people in the world have a lot of very tough days. I am not this kind of person, so I feel very lucky."

Nadal's uncle forbade the throwing of a racket for it was disrespectful to an instrument many kids ache to own. Such tutoring by family to distinguish between athletic disappointment and real suffering has kept him from an excessively self-centred view of life. Taught by the example of Roger Federer, he has found the balance between sport and life. Educated by the brutality of his sport - "You're out there alone. You really are. It's the ultimate one-on-one sport," said Pete Sampras - it has bred a particular respect: you are alone, but you understand so is the next man.

Nadal did not skip his press conference, for tennis demands the athlete must confront rival, crowd and then interrogation. This is his job, yet here also lay his mettle. On the third question on his injured back, he responded: "It is not the moment, as I said after the first question. This is not the moment to talk a lot about the back."

To a query on the briefly petulant crowd, he noted: "You never will hear me talk badly about the crowd here."

Winning tells grand stories as it did about Wawrinka's urge to improve in athletic middle-age, but the champion is not enough in sport. To decode sport, we need the defeated man. For everyone is defeated and only in the emotional, public whirlpool of loss can we appreciate the core of the athlete. We see them wear masks, resort to cliche, show defiance - and why not, they are hurt - but also lift. Such athletes reveal to us not mythical hero, but fine human player.

And, if we can - and must - look past this tribalistic and mundane view of tennis, where to elevate Federer we must diminish Nadal, and vice versa, we will find a grateful education. For by being weepy yet never whiny, Nadal defeated self-pity. Like a stone thrown over water, he, the competitor, skipped over sports' demons and found grace on the other shore. This is victory in itself.

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