From Wimbledon, a lasting lesson in sportsmanship

2008-07-11 00:00

If the cricketing combatants meeting this week at Lord’s produce half as much drama, brilliance and grace as the Wimbledon men’s finalists, then followers of the game are in for a treat.

Throughout their epic engagement, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played with passion and skill.

Their sportsmanship was a lesson for everyone. Both athletes went to the extremes in pursuit of victory, unfurling a stream of stunning strokes, often at the critical moment. It was a contest between refined champion and raw contender, a battle of wills and wits that gripped its audience from first to last. Repeatedly the ball went back and forth, dipping, floating, landing on the line, the combatants constantly searching for an opening and pouncing on it in their contrasting ways, the ballet dancer and the bullfighter. Probably it was the match of a generation.

As far as cricketers, and, for that matter, other sportsmen, are concerned, the significant feature of this confrontation was the conduct of the players. In these days of huge stakes and fierce scrutiny, it is not supposed to be possible for sportsmen competing at the highest levels to behave with dignity and decorum. Federer and Nadal proved otherwise. Throughout a thrilling contest in which their emotions and energies must have been drained, at the end of an intense fortnight and amid breaks in play calculated to frazzle the nerves, they displayed unfailing respect for the game and for each other. Evidently it is not necessary to rant and rave, or to egg on the crowd. Nor is it required to show the sort of ratbaggery sometimes seen in Lleyton Hewitt, a doughty but graceless warrior. It is possible to be magnificent without being mean.

It was the same before and after the match. Both participants conducted themselves with unfeigned humility. The Spanish challenger was full of praise for his opponent, insisting that he remained the stronger player, even though on this occasion he had suffered a narrow loss. Nadal said he regarded the Swiss as his superior in every respect except defence, and pointed out that while the vanquished had won Wimbledon five times, he had enjoyed a solitary success. Without hiding his disappointment, the defeated champion said that he had been beaten by a better man.

He said he had tried everything, but that he had been unable to subdue an increasingly crafty opponent. Mind you, as the Duke of Wellington said after Waterloo, it was a close-run thing — 207 points to 204.

What fun it was not to care about the result, both players being so deserving. Our tendency is to turn sporting contests into showdowns between supposed heroes and villains, the better to identify with one or the other. In our youth we are inclined to support the protest figure railing against the establishment, constantly tormented by the frailty of a thinly understood talent. The rebel reminds us of our own traumatic journey into life, our struggles to make a mark in an apparently hostile world. As the years pass, we start to admire the accomplishments and manners of the champion and to dismiss those unwilling to grow up. It is one thing for a prodigy to throw his toys out of the cot, quite another for a senior player have a tantrum. Setbacks are part of the game. Maturity brings the realisation that every player is merely a servant of the game.

On this occasion, the duellists were not so easily categorised. Federer was something of a handful in his formative years. So was Andre Agassi. At various times both had more hair than Black Sabbath’s lead singer. Not that hair length is an entirely reliable guide to what is happening a few inches below. Before long Federer realised that throwing his racquet served little purpose, whereupon he concentrated on the next point. Nowadays his fire is used to heat and not to burn.

It is a lesson Tiger Woods learned at the age of about five.

Not the least interesting thing about Nadal is that he could so easily have cast himself as James Dean with catgut. It must have been tempting, because he looks sharp in a bandana, has sultry looks, biceps like pies and a rage for the game. He could have played to the gallery. Instead he showed respect for the game even as he wore his own clothes and played by his own lights.

Ignoring the vanity of genius, he pursued greatness. It has been a remarkable achievement.

It is to be earnestly hoped that everyone involved at Lord’s aspires to the same standards. Let us not hear anything contentious about KP or umpires or catches. Let the teams fight with every power at their disposal, but also with grace. Cricketers often talk about sportsmanship, but it is hard to think of a widely cherished champion team since the West Indies in the 1960s. Federer and Nadal have reminded us that it does not need to be like that. Games are what we make them.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent based in the KZN midlands.

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