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Two great players

If you haven’t heard, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played an epic tennis match in Melbourne, Australia over the weekend. It took place in the finals of the Australian Open, one of four Grand Slam events in tennis. Federer won in five sets and that is obviously one of the big storylines. It was his eighteenth Grand Slam win (four more than anyone else); the first one that he had won in five years; and he was coming off a six month layoff due to knee surgery. That’s all pretty heady stuff.

It was a great match of high quality tennis with the fifth set being played at an extremely high level (including a 26 stroke rally) and each player pushing the other to their limits. Nadal had a 3-1 lead with a service break when Federer somehow reached down deep to take the next five games and the match.

Another significant aspect of the story is the rivalry between the two players. For starters, they are two of the winningest players in the history of the sport. Between them, they have won 32 Grand Slams tournaments. In terms of head-to-head competition, the five-year-younger Nadal has experienced more success against Federer than anyone else. Going in to their finals match, they had played 35 times over 13 years with Nadal holding a 23-11 advantage. In Grand Slams he held a 6-2 edge. If Federer is the greatest player of all time, then as one writer put it, Nadal is “the greatest player of Federer.” To see these two go at it for over 3 hours and 5 sets in what could be their final meeting ever in a Grand Slam final was as about good as it gets in sports of any kind.

But for me, the last word in all of this is the incredible sportsmanship and class that both have players have always displayed. I remember when John McEnroe came on the tennis scene in the eighties and there was so much buzz about how refreshing it was to see a player show his emotions—whether it was in berating himself, his opponent, or one of the match officials. He was being “authentic” and not suppressing his feelings. What followed was a whole generation of athletes acting up and out—not all of them by any means, but enough so that now in most sports if a player makes a good play, we will be subjected to them calling attention to themselves for doing something they are astronomically compensated for. (Try to imagine dancing and prancing around at your workplace every time you do something that’s part of your job description). From my point of view, refreshing is when they have enough respect for the game, the competition and themselves to control their emotions and go back to the huddle, the dugout, or run back down the court. That is way the game is supposed to be played and that’s what Nadal and Federer do. Their idea of celebration is an occasional fist pump.

All of this was on display during the award ceremony after the match. Nadal said of Federer, “It’s amazing how well he’s playing after being away for so long. For sure, you have been working a lot to make that happen. I am very happy for you.” Federer said, “Tennis is a tough sport, there’s no draws. But if there was going to be one I would have been happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa, really. Keep playing please Rafa. Tennis needs you.” It’s amazing to watch two competitors play at such a high level of intensity and then immediately afterward to speak with such grace and poise. You can be sure it doesn’t happen by accident—because they are in control on the court, they have composure off the court.

I wonder would happen if every young person were given the opportunity to watch Nadal and Federer at the awards ceremony before they started competing in sports. It would take less than ten minutes to do so. Maybe it would help them to see there’s a world of difference between being a winning player and being a great player.  

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