Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sportsmen need to learn respect from Nadal

Jul 6, 2010

By Rohit Brijnath, Sporting Life

THE official photograph at the net was done. The duel had commenced. Tomas Berdych was about to walk to his baseline when Rafael Nadal murmured something to him. A greeting? A gentle 'good luck'? Often he will do it, as if acknowledging his opponent's humanity. It is refreshing, an act of a man who plays as if he is at war, yet his every gesture is of an athlete who recognises this is only sport after all.

Nadal knows about lines. Lines to hit and those not to step over. When the match was done and they crossed paths with their different silverware, he tapped Berdych on the back. When he left the court, he high-fived the crowd; when he broke Andy Murray's heart, he offered a healing embrace. His respect for his world is consistent: At last year's US Open, knees aching, he signed autographs after his defeat.

Nadal, at 24, is already Jimmy Connors' equal with eight Slams. These men make for interesting comparison for both share a strong similarity yet are different.

Connors trained as if locked in competition, as if a practice point lost was manhood questioned. Ethic became habit and passion transferred automatically from training ground to championship arena. Nadal's tennis echoes a similar religiosity. As he said on Sunday: 'I think all my life I practised with my high 100 per cent of intensity in every ball in the practice.'

But Connors, insulting umpires, surly in the press room, a picture of puerile, bowl-cut rebellion, could not keep sport in proportion. Nadal does, he appreciates that his responsibility to sport goes beyond displaying skill. It is about respecting the audience and his profession.

A game is defined by its present champions, they give it stature, they are handed it for safe-keeping. When Tiger Woods, throwing clubs and tossing invective, forgot this, Tom Watson said last year: 'I think he needs to clean up his act there and show respect for the game that people before him have shown.'

Watson's words should have been etched in World Cup dressing rooms, reminding footballers of their place and purpose. Too many perform as if the game owes them, as if this sport that offered them opportunity is lucky to have them.

Into modern sport has been built an unequal relationship: a fat pay cheque but slim responsibility. Even great players forget they are temporary owners of a sport. Eventually they go, but football stays, yet few care if they leave it a finer game.

Robinho's tantrums were unforgivable. Arjen Robben is far too gifted to require diving, yet this cheap tactic, rehearsed in his mind, mocks football. If diving has become custom, it is because too few stand up against it and surely this is the job of the great player. Yet they know that we, the audience, are too quickly forgiving of lower standards.

Luis Suarez's handball on the goal-line might be forgiven as instinctive, yet his bragging later, his inflated sense of himself as a saviour, was ridiculous. Beckenbauer thumped England repeatedly, Pele sneered at Maradona, Maradona jousted with Platini, Argentina and Germany derided each other, Rooney moaned about fans, Ronaldo spit at a cameraman.

[I cannot judge if in the heat of the game, the passion of the game, with patriotism and national pride flooding thru my veins I would not do the same as Suarez. But at the end of it all, there must be humility and respect for the game. Acknowledging that what was done was not sporting, but that one can still be a sportsman and not brag about it like it was a badge of honour. Yes, I would do it again, for my country, but I am not proud of it. I extend my apologies to the other team. Something like that.]

Only Messi, even in frustrated defeat, even aware of criticism to come, did not fall into sly posturing against Germany in some faux attempt to show passion. He came and left in dignity.
This is no call for sanitised sport. In arenas of despair and devotion and desire, some anarchy is inevitable, even desirable, for humans are at play. But even amidst passion, respect can breathe. As Nadal's uncle, Toni, told a newspaper once: 'Rafael has never thrown his racket. For me, it is unbelievable how some people treat what they are given.'

Athletes often use competitiveness as excuse for surliness, they believe praise of rival is weakness. On the contrary, in acknowledging an opponent, a team recognise the valour of other men seeking the same prize as them. It makes football what we like to believe it is: beautiful.
And so it is belated, yet appropriate, that as the Cup begins its conclusion, a flicker of sport's etiquette has returned. Andres Iniesta has simply said: 'Germany have had a brilliant World Cup so far and regardless of their excellent results, they're also playing very well.' Miroslav Klose has said: 'Villa is a very clever player, he has a great deal of qualities.'

It did not cost them anything, but already it makes their semi-final appealing, a collision of fine teams who respect each other. Somewhere, on the banks of a river near Mallorca where he might be found fishing, a Spanish tennis player will be applauding their grace.


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