Tuesday, June 02, 2009

How to fall with grace

For someone who's not athletic at all, I'm a pretty avid sports spectator. It's not just the vicarious thrills and spills I'm after; I like how sports dramatically draw out and underscore strengths and weaknesses of body, mind, and spirit. And human character is seen none the more starkly than in the glaring light of victory or defeat.

An article in the Los Angeles Times contrasts two such cases: two guys gunning for greatness, both falling short of their goals. But one handled it like a man, the other like a diva. The former is Rafael Nadal, ranked the #1 tennis player in the world, reigning 4-time champion at Roland Garros and the heralded King of Clay, who bowed out in the
4th round of the French Open in a stunning upset by world #23 Robin Soderling. The latter is LeBron James, star player of the Cleveland Cavaliers, reigning NBA Most Valuable Player and hailed King James, who failed to carry his team to the Eastern Conference Championships and the NBA Finals. The pressure on both these young athletes was tremendous, and when defeat came unexpectedly, it would have been understandable if they had just gone to pieces.

But whereas LeBron left in a huff without acknowledging any of the Orlando Magic players who had bested the Cavs, didn't show up to the post-game press conference along with his teammates, and refused to face the media until a few days later, Nadal had the cajones to not only show up to his post-match press con, but own up to his shortcomings
AND congratulate his opponent, a man he doesn't even like very much.

Speaking of Soderling, I really wasn't sure at first why my student and die-hard Nadal fan (and future fiancee) Tommy calls the Swede a "douchebag", but when I read his comments after he had beaten Rafa, I realized the guy IS a bit of an a-hole. Nadal had been quoted by the AFP saying this about Soderling: "He didn't surprise me because I know how he plays and how dangerous he can be. I didn't play my best. I played very short and I couldn't attack. I made it easy for him to play at his level." The seemingly innocuous statement apparently rankled Soderling, who retorted with "...if he thinks that he made it easy for me then that's his choice. I would never say anything like that." Bitter much? Dude, you already won. Quit being so defensive. Even Nadal's attempts at diplomacy ("what we say in the locker room stays there, and we said nothing") were dismissed by Soderling as Nadal being in "his complaining mood", as quoted by Reuters.

How one conducts himself in victory and in defeat is very telling indeed, not only of the
kind of player he is but the kind of person he is. Most of the sports figures I admire and respect are not just skilled athletes on-court, but prove to be upstanding sports off-court (I've written their praises here and here). Sadly, we hear more accounts of individuals who do not know how to be gracious winners or losers (see this and this and this and this), and it's getting increasingly difficult to find role models we can look up to and emulate. When questioned about his not shaking Dwight Howard's hand after their last game, LeBron James said unapologetically: "I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them. That doesn't make sense to me. I'm a competitor. That's what I do. It doesn't make sense for me to go over and shake somebody's hand." Really. That's the MVP right there?

Thankfully, for every LeBron, we can still find someone like Rafael Nadal, who even at the top of his game maintains a humility that helps him accept defeat with all the class of a champion. Says Rafa: "It's not a tragedy, I had to lose one day. I must accept my defeats with the same level of calm that I accept my victories." Spoken like a true winner.


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