Goliath triumphs, but Rafael Nadal wins hearts
What was this? Novak Djokovic had just defeated Rafael Nadal in the final of the 2012 Australian Open, and I suddenly found that I could not watch. As he tore his shirt from his chest, letting out a roar as he headed towards his adoring family and friends in the crowd, I turned away: possibly in envy at his perfect pectorals, but there was something more. The next day, I realised what it was.
You see, I’d refused to read any reports of the epic encounter, in which Djokovic had prevailed after a record-breaking five hours and fifty minutes. Refusal to read match reports is a rule of mine every time that Manchester United succumb to the opposition, which is why I am quite happy to congratulate Liverpool fans on Twitter but I steadfastly ignore any post-match analyses that they might cheekily send me. The pain of loss is too great to relive. And so the conclusion was inescapable: somewhere along the line, I had joined Team Nadal. In the space of a few compelling points, I had become a Rafa fanatic. Why was this: and why, if at all, did it matter?
We don’t choose our sports teams, or our athletes. They choose us. We project so many of our complexes, hopes and dreams onto them. Though I love flamboyance in sport, I have never truly warmed to Usain Bolt, because I find something ugly about the showmanship of celebrating a race before you have won it. I think I love watching Nadal because he reminds me of Manchester United. For someone so overwhelmingly successful, for someone so technically accomplished, he plays the underdog with surprising conviction. The crown of dominance was never one that he wore lightly. Strange as it may seem to younger readers, there was once a time when Manchester United were utterly mediocre, which is when I fell in love with them. Hopelessly average, they went out each week with the intention of entertaining, of performing. Every now and then, they gloriously succeeded.
And that’s the thing about Nadal. I think that he appeals to every one of us who has visibly had to scrap to get anywhere in life. There are some people in this world – like, say, Federer and Djokovic – whose success, owing to their prodigious natural talents, seem assured. Though they both have an extraordinary work ethic, they nonetheless look like they belong at the top. Tall, elegant, angular, their ascension into the pantheon was inevitable. They’ve always had something of the Goliath about them. It was widely and correctly remarked that, once Djokovic knuckled down and focused upon his career, the rewards would surely follow. Nadal, by contrast, a stocky bundle of muscle, is the kind of person you can imagine scrambling up that same mountainside, all sweaty brow and calloused hands. He is a serial Grand-Slammer, it seems, by sheer force of will.
That’s why, when the Majorcan multi-millionaire’s shoulders slumped after his five-set defeat, my heart didn’t really sink for him; it sank for me. It sank for all those people who put together the most magnificent effort their flesh can muster and still come up short, who find a Djokovic standing resolutely just in front of their impossible goals. The wonderful guarantee with Nadal, though, is that he’ll always return for more. We can only hope that this most indomitable and unlikeliest of underdogs does not put us through this same torment any time soon.Tagged in: Australian Open, David, Goliath, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federe, Sport, Tennis
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