Nirmal Shekar

The nice guy who finishes first

HISTORIC moments in sport often tend to divert our attention from things that are at the heart of the greatness of the men and women who author those moments.

Take Rafael Nadal, for instance.

We've heard so much about his greatness over the last couple of days since he became the youngest man in the Open Era (post-1968) to complete a career Grand Slam.

A courageous conquistador with legendary fighting skills, a forbiddingly gifted athlete who has improved his game almost unbelievably to become a versatile all-surface champion, a man who, at age 24, can confidently look up to the game's Everest with the hope of one day setting foot there…

But through all the acres of newsprint awash with adjectives, amidst the adulatory zeitgeist sweeping across the media, there were few — if any — references to a simple virtue that makes Nadal a unique champion, arguably one without a match at his level of accomplishment.

His humility.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that modesty was “a hypocrisy” when it was displayed by men of great talent. Nobody in modern sport — not just tennis — has proved the great German wrong quite as emphatically as has Nadal.

Not a mask

With Rafa, modesty isn't a mask, for he is a very poor actor. He doesn't do modesty to win over fans, or the media. There is not a whiff of the imposter about him. His humility defines him as a human being. That's really who he is.

“The talk about if I am better or worse than Roger (Federer) is stupid, because the titles say he's much better than me. That's true at the moment. I think that will be true all my life.''

This from a man who won't turn 25 until June 2011, from a player who has already won nine Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal.

From this column's standpoint, Federer will occupy a place higher than Nadal in the pantheon of greats even if the gladiatorial Spaniard goes on to beat the Swiss alpinist's Grand Slam record. That's because nobody has ever played tennis like Federer did — or still does, if not quite as consistently as in his peak.

To say that Federer won a record 16 Grand Slam titles is like saying Mozart's compositions are so many dots of ink on paper. This is easy enough to state from an aesthetic perspective.

But for a man who has mastered the maestro 14 times out of 21, and five of those occasions being Grand Slam finals, to say that a fading (arguably?) Federer is “much better than me” is something else.

Humility comes in different hues. Spinoza believed that it was an emotion that arose from the contemplation of one's weakness. That could hardly be true in Nadal's case. But no matter what all the moral theories regarding humility might have to say, especially when the humble person is a celebrated high achiever, the virtue that Nadal possesses is utterly genuine.

The truth

Nadal says what he does about Federer simply because he believes that to be the truth. This is hardly Schopenhaeur's definition of humility as hypocrisy. It is, on the other hand, unornamented candour, truth telling of the noblest order — saying it like it is even if it meant belittling oneself.

Sport and snobbery often appear to be made for each other at the highest levels, but Nadal is probably — and in my own case, certainly — the nicest, classiest champion in modern tennis. In my 30-plus years of covering the sport, I have not come across a more gracious world-beater.

“It is not the titles that honour men but men that honour titles,'' wrote Niccolo Machiavelli. This is very much true in Nadal's case.

Celebrated sportsmen don't get to live in clandestinity. In the event, it is not easy to put on a choir boy act week after week, year after year. Nadal is a class act, period.

The writer of this column has met him and interacted with him in vastly different tournaments, in places such as Chennai, London and Melbourne. He never once struck me as a person who was doing the Nice Guy bit to impress anyone. He always came across as the person he really was.

Going after great records in sport is a lot like chasing happiness in life. In the unlikely event that you did reach the goal, there would still be the question ‘Is there all there is to it?'

On the other hand, if you found fulfilment in becoming a better and better person, a better and better champion, happiness/records will knock on your door. Nadal perhaps knows this better than a lot of other champions.

Forget, for a moment, his stature as a tennis player. Rafa is a great guy. The sport would be very much diminished without him.

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Printable version | May 5, 2021 3:16:17 PM |

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