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Lessons of champions play out on grass

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Kathleen Parker
July 9, 2008
— If you read Monday morning’s sports headlines, you learned that Rafael Nadal “dethroned” and “shocked” tennis champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon.

He won, in other words. But barely, barely.


If, on the other hand, you actually watched the Sunday match, you know that though one player prevailed, both men won. You also awoke Monday morning physically exhausted and emotionally spent.


To watch this Wimbledon was to endure, to sweat, to grip the arms of your chair through a 4-hour, 48-minute white-knuckle contest between two giants of grace and beauty, and that other thing.


Ah, yes, class.


Some rare days, the performances of others inspire and uplift. Sunday was one of those days. The match also provided a welcome reprieve from the coarseness of our culture, the pile-driving pace of our perpetual politics, and offered a glimpse at what sportsmanship—on and off the court—ought to look like.


To those who don’t care whether the little ball gets over the net, as a friend of mine once described her lack of interest in tennis, Wimbledon may not have made the radar screen. But Sunday’s contest transcended a single sport and entered the realm of surpassing spectacle. It was a gripping contest of will and spirit.


Federer at 26 is the leading man of tennis. He hadn’t lost Wimbledon since 2002 and was poised to tie another record—six straight titles. Nadal, just 22 and holder of four French Open titles, was positioned to become the first Spaniard to win Wimbledon since 1966.


Otherwise, this was no ordinary encounter. Between the vagaries of weather and the clash of these titanic talents, the match is unmatched in tennis history. Twice rain forced the players to stop, while wind gusts altered shots and points. Break points bounced maddeningly between deuces and ads. Finally, on his fourth match point, Nadal was able to wrest the championship from Federer.


Throughout, both men were mesmerizingly fierce and yet imperturbably calm. At crucial points they were like gladiators playing chess. Notably missing were the tantrums, histrionics, profane outbursts and end-zone antics we so often witness in sports these days. At a time when adults bemoan the paucity of role models, Wimbledon provided a banquet of riches.


Tennis has always been a gentleman’s (and lady’s) game, though in recent years standards have sagged. Manners aren’t as fashionable or as rigorously enforced as once upon a time. Attire has evolved from traditional whites to duds of one’s choosing. Yet Wimbledon still requires players to dress in white.


Nadal wore knee-length “shorts” and a sleeveless shirt, while Federer was dressed more conservatively. We moderns like to pretend that clothes don’t matter, that personal style is simply another function of freedom of expression. Yet we still judge others by how they present themselves, and Federer’s presentation on the court bespoke a higher level of respect for the game.


The men’s playing styles are equally different. Nadal is Sylvester Stallone to Federer’s Baryshnikov. Nadal enters the court like a steeplechase stallion, jogging in place, aching to hit the track. Federer is a Zen master—centered, calm, patient.


By the end of the first three sets, however, all such distinctions evaporated. I am probably not alone in saying that by the last set, I no longer cared who won. I wanted neither to lose. Both were victors who demonstrated how to win and how to lose.


After the finale, Federer, layered in long pants and sweater, looked as if he’d just stepped out of the shower to accept his second-place silver tray. Affectionately cuffing Nadal on the back of the neck, he posed for fans and kept his remarks brief: “I tried everything. … But Rafa is a deserving champion. … It’s a pity I couldn’t win it in the circumstances, but I’ll be back next year.”


For his part, Nadal—sweat-soaked and choking back emotion—climbed the stands to embrace his parents. It was a touching moment that needed no commentary. Afterward, Nadal raised the gold trophy and was gracious in victory.


“I’m so proud because I feel I am playing against, and now beating, the best player in the history of tennis. The fight he put up against me was unbelievable, and I congratulate him for that. I also have to say that he is a credit to our sport whether he wins or he loses.”


It doesn’t get any better than that. Would that life imitated Sunday’s Wimbledon.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.

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