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Elizabeth Kaye | November 9, 2012

The residue of competition

Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and the lessons of character

The most dominant players in men’s tennis – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal – collectively hold 29 of the last 31 Grand Slam titles. As players, they have distinct strengths and weaknesses and styles, but their most meaningful differences are found beyond the narrow concerns of win/loss columns or head-to-head results or the clinical minutiae that clutter stat sheets.

Those disparities reside in each man’s character, a trait that used to be the yardstick for assessing a person’s measure, but one that has become increasingly devalued, especially in the winner-take-all milieu of sports, which favors more readily parlayed virtues like energy and strength and speed.

High-minded tennis purists tend to regard character as peripheral to the sport. But for some observers and many fans, a player’s character – or, more accurately, their particular perception of it – determines who they love and who they revile and matters at least as much as whether a guy has amped up his serve or is hitting winners with his backhand down the line or going wide with his cross-court forehand.

Character, as defined by the dictionary, is "the complex of mental and ethical traits marking a person… which determine his or her response regardless of circumstances."

As a practical matter, it is character that dictates how well a player navigates the ever-looming minefields of expectation and pressure – the kind that comes both from themselves and from everyone else; it is character that enables cosseted players to maintain the requisite level of confidence without becoming insufferable.

Character is, in other words, an internal compass with distinctly visible effects that become especially pronounced in a sport that is a zero sum, reactive encounter, in which each player seeks to force the other back behind the baseline, to get him on the run, make him lunge, scramble, cede the angles, and, in the process, confound him, make him miss, make him look foolish, dominate him, break his will. Tennis is, in other words, a gloriously savage pas de deux in which, by the end of a hard-fought match, players are driven so relentlessly that their defenses are decimated. Character is what remains when that match ends. It is the unwitting residue of competition.


This is why, when it comes to character, every player has a tell, one that can be discerned by the way they respond to defeat and to victory. Those responses are not reflected in rankings but for an index of their enduring significance, consider the call to character emblazoned on the portal to Wimbledon’s Centre Court:

"If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same."

Like many people who dedicate an inordinately huge portion of their only life to watching two athletes whack felt-covered rubber balls until one succumbs and the other prevails, I settled long ago on a favorite player. For me, that player is Nadal whose absence from this year’s U.S. Open and every tournament since has left a void that could not be filled, one that steeped these events, for some, in "what if" and, for others, in "if only."

Over a number of years, I’ve observed Nadal during practices and matches; I’ve interviewed him and written about him. I’ve admired his inherent sweetness off the court, marveled at his intensity and mercilessness during a match and come to appreciate Jimmy Connors’ inspired description of him: "He plays like he’s broke."

Rafael Nadal

I liked Nadal for biting his trophies instead of kissing them, and for never throwing a racquet in anger and for the time he took, right before a match, to have pictures taken with an elderly lady in a wheelchair who yearned to meet him. And, at the 2010 U.S. Open, I liked the way he answered when I asked, "What would you tell a young player who wants to be a pro?"

"Learn to enjoy suffering,"
he said.

That credo has a lot to do with the way Nadal grapples with losses and wins, a startling number of which have had a dimension that can only be described as epic: the eventual victory in semi-darkness at Wimbledon 2008; prevailing at the 2009 Australian Open when he was thought to be too exhausted to compete much less win; the shocking exits in the Round of 16 at the 2009 French Open where he was the four-time champion and had never lost a match; and in the 2nd Round of this year’s Wimbledon, which many commentators had picked him to win and where he’d made it to the final the last five times he’d played and twice been champion.

An early loss by Nadal in any Grand Slam triggers an onslaught of commentary that turns considerably more apocalyptic when he loses on clay to a player generally regarded – until that upset – as a chronic under-achiever, or when he falls to a virtual unknown ranked 100 in the world who had previously never managed to win a single set on grass.

Of course it’s the recognition of Nadal’s greatness that causes these losses to be ballyhooed as two of the greatest upsets of all time. In that sense, the presentiments of doom expressed in the articles and tweets and Facebook postings that proliferated in their wake were compliments to him, albeit the sort of compliments he could do without.

After the Wimbledon loss one of the first questions asked in his press conference was about the match having been suspended in the early evening so the roof over Centre Court could be closed. It was a decision made at the end of the fourth set, when the score was two sets apiece and Nadal had finally found his rhythm and form and his opponent, Lucas Rosol, seemed spent.

The rationale for this delay was that the roof would keep the match from being halted by darkness if the fifth set went long; its immediate consequence was to give the fading Rosol an opportunity to re-group which proved the sports equivalent of being born again.

Nadal’s defeat at the French Open was even more significant: the King of Clay is not supposed to lose prior to the quarterfinals at the only clay court Grand Slam, even when he has tendinitis in both knees and has lately been devastated by learning that his parents are getting divorced. But, having lost in four sets, Nadal left the court dazed and anguished, acknowledging with an upraised hand the raucous crowd that had vociferously supported his opponent.

"I need to learn," he said to reporters an hour later. "And you learn more when you lose than when you win. You need a defeat to give value to your victories."

He was one week away from turning 23, an age not generally noted for the wisdom and grace he displayed. His words put me in mind of something an editor once said about him. "Nadal is instructional," she had told me, by which she meant that you can learn from him.

Earlier that year, he put forth a different sort of lesson after playing Federer in the Australian Open final. The stakes had been crazily high: Federer was vying to position himself as the Greatest of All Time by equaling Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slams, just as Nadal was looking to make an unequivocal statement of primacy over Federer by besting him in three successive Grand Slam finals played on three different surfaces.

For the first time in their colossal battles, it was Nadal, not Federer, who was the world No. 1. Yet heading into the match Federer had been heavily favored because he’s Federer, because he’d won that tournament three times before, and because Nadal was spent after his semi-final against Fernando Verdasco, a 5 hour, 14 minute marathon so visceral and draining that Nadal’s eyes brimmed with tears of relief when he reached match point.

"I’m not sure the playing field’s ever been more tilted in a final," said ESPN’s Chris Fowler, who also noted that as Nadal jousted into the small hours, the most pressing matter facing Federer was whether to eat the mints on his pillow.

Yet Nadal found a way to win and, during the trophy presentation, after Federer broke into tears and blurted, "God, it’s killing me," it fell to Nadal to cope with the fact that his erstwhile celebration had been turned into a burial rite for Federer’s dreams.

Competitive athletes evince many emotions in the wake of a hard fought match; compassion is rarely among them.

Later, when I spoke with Nadal about that night, I said that it seemed that he’d raised the trophy with reluctance. That was true, he allowed. Other than that, he would say only that it was "a tough moment."

It was also an unusual one. Competitive athletes evince many emotions in the wake of a hard fought match; compassion is rarely among them.

When Novak Djokovic was a kid being raised in Belgrade, Serbia, his mother told him that he is "the child of God." Not "a" child, mind you, but "the" child. That assignation might have troubled her other two sons but was, in any case, a commendation Novak took to heart. Or so we can deduce from a number of clues, among them the way he shakes his finger at the heavens when things aren’t going well on court, and from a remark he made about his career year, 2011, during which he won three Grand Slam titles.

"What I did in 2011 was written down already by the Almighty," he said, an assertion that might not sit well with anyone who prefers to believe that God has better things to do than predict the outcome of tennis matches.

My first sense of Djokovic’s true character came in 2006, when he was not yet the fervid Serbian nationalist he would become and was considering leaving his native land to play for Great Britain. He cracked the top 40 that year by reaching the quarterfinals of the French Open, where he faced Nadal for the first time on clay. Down two sets to love, he retired from the match – citing back pain – then spoke at a press conference that would be of interest to behavioral therapists studying the relationship between self-belief and self-delusion.

The next year, he would retire at Wimbledon and retire again at the 2009 Australian Open leading some to note that if he ever retires at the U.S. Open he’ll have achieved a Career Grand Slam in retirements.

By 2008, Djokovic was No. 3 in the world. At the U.S. Open, he beat Tommy Robredo in the Round of 16, interrupting their five-set contest repeatedly to call the trainer for ailments involving his stomach, ankle, hip and several other body parts and organs. During a press conference after the match, I suggested to the visibly disgusted Robredo that it seemed as if he didn’t trust that Djokovic had actually been injured.

"Did I trust him? No," Robredo said.

Later that afternoon Djokovic’s next opponent, Andy Roddick, made plain that he didn’t trust him either.

Two days after that, Djokovic beat Roddick in the quarterfinals. He was, apparently, so aggrieved by Roddick’s less than reverential take on him that, during his on-court post-match interview, he could not resist the urge to rub the victory in. This was not a wise thing to do in front of the decidedly pro-Roddick crowd, and he elicited fervent boos when he told them, "Andy was saying I have 16 injuries. Well, obviously, I don’t."

Recounting the incident, ran this picture and caption:

The more he won, the more he proved that success does not necessarily have a mellowing effect. In 2011, at the Madrid Masters, he beat Nadal on clay for the first time in nine attempts then gathered with his team for a "celebration," the primary feature of which was his out-of-shape, shirtless coach humping a tournament car.

For an exercise in the impossible, try to imagine Nadal or Federer beating Djokovic in Belgrade and celebrating in similar fashion.

Two months later Djokovic defeated Nadal at Wimbledon, in the process succeeding him as the world No. 1. He marked the event with a triumphant ride through the streets of Belgrade in a double-decker bus that resembled a garish Pope-mobile with the addition of gigantic pictures of Djokovic on both sides.

In late July, just in case anyone would mistakenly assume that he would subscribe to the tacit, but universally understood, code of conduct that accompanies the top ranking, he posed for the photograph below with his friend, Janko Tipsarevic, another Serbian player, who posted the picture on his Facebook page with the caption:

"How much $€£ would #Nadal gief??;)" (he meant give…)

Djokovic beat Nadal for the seventh time in a row at the 2012 Australian Open in the longest match ever played there, a 5 hour, 53 minute slaughterous marathon with an aftermath that Nadal’s coach – who is also his uncle – may have had in mind when observing that Djokovic is a better loser than he is a winner.

For contrast, look at Nadal’s response after the second-longest match at the Australian Open, in which he played a spectacularly brutal semi-final in 2009 against Fernando Verdasco.

In victory, Djokovic seems to take his cues from his mother, who proclaimed "The king is dead" when her son beat Federer at the 2008 Australian Open, and then offered the following observation when the child of God ascended to No. 1: "For four years, it was Roger, Rafa, Rafa, Roger. Now it is Novak, Novak, Novak, Novak."

Roger Federer is, in many ways, the victim and captive of his own greatness. Praised and adored for so long by so many, he seems to have assumed the attitudes of worshipful fans who brandish signs at his matches that read "Shhh... genius at work." His consequent frame of mind echoes that of the commentator who began his coverage of a Federer match with the words "Not to deify the guy but…" and manifests in self-enamored statements that include such niceties as "Shocking how well I played" and "I’m definitely a very talented player. I always knew I had something special."

Only Federer could say "I love my game, watching myself…" and have that remark cited by Steve Tignor, one of the finest, most distinguished tennis writers, as charming proof of what he described as Federer’s "trademark innocent narcissism."

Roger Federer is, in many ways, the victim and captive of his
own greatness.

Fawning over Federer has become such a staple of tennis reportage that commentators often employ a certain exalted parlance when remarking on what he does. One, for instance, recently refused to settle for saying that Federer came back from two sets down to win a five set match, or that he did anything as mundane as engineer a comeback. Rather, he pointed out that victory is something Federer orchestrates, a word associated less with sports than with the successful completion of high-level diplomatic missions.

This is not to say that Federer is the only player who is swooned over by television commentators, many of whom tend toward defensive overkill when reporting about tennis, a great and noble sport that nonetheless – in the eyes of many – is to basketball or baseball or soccer or football what Philadelphia is to New York. This leads to an anxiety to enshrine even that which does not seem entirely worthy of enshrinement.

"Such a personality," one commentator marveled when speaking of Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. "He walked out on the court and the first thing he did was wave at all the fans!"

Still, it often seems that no one is more impressed with Federer than the man himself, for it takes something more than a robust ego to arrive on Wimbledon’s Centre Court toting a gold lame accented man purse while decked out in gold and white shoes, white slacks and a military-style jacket worn over a four button vest. In another season – and another burst of sartorial splendor – he stepped onto the pristine grass clad in a tailored, cream-colored jacket replete with a golden crest composed of symbols invoking his native country, his Wimbledon titles and his astrological sign. This is fashion as hubris. What other player would offer such implicit dares to a universe in which pride always comes before a fall?

Roger Federer

It may seem that Federer’s attire has nothing to do with the way he responds to losing or winning. But in fact, his on court wardrobe, and the supercilious grandeur it achieved by 2009, had everything to do with winning – that is, with his countless previous wins, with the assumption that more would follow, and with his apparent acceptance of the widespread belief that winning had vaulted him from self-made man to self-made king.

Still, it often seems that no one is more impressed with Federer than the man himself.

Federer’s dubious wardrobe selections reached a nadir after the 2009 Wimbledon final, in which he beat Andy Roddick in a fifth set played to a score of 16-14. The victory endowed him with a record-setting 15 Grand Slam titles and, as the devastated Roddick looked on, he marked the occasion by donning a jacket with the number 15 embroidered on it in gold, a choice whose most arrogant aspect was not that he did it but that he assumed he could get away with it. But in fact, he didn’t get away with it; Jon Wertheim, writing for Sports Illustrated, expressed the stark verdict of many when noting that the jacket "simultaneously managed to be presumptuous, self-aggrandizing and sensationally tacky."

Federer is perceived as the great gentleman of the gentleman’s sport, a view justified in many instances but entirely blind to another record Federer has set – this one for the most attempts to verbally psych out the opposition. Of course, being Federer means that he is never quite upbraided for this. Instead, he is awarded suitably lofty monikers, as when Chris Fowler revealed a knack for crafting oxymoron’s by dubbing him "an elegant trash talker." A classic example occurred prior to the 2010 Australian Open final when Federer laid out the following riff about his opponent, Andy Murray, who he’d dominated in the final of the 2008 U.S. Open.

"I know he’d like to win the first [Grand Slam title] for British tennis in, what is it, 150,000 years?" Federer said, "… not winning the first one doesn’t help second time around. Plus he’s playing, you know, me, someone who’s won many Grand Slams... I think he really needs it more than I do. I think the pressure’s big on him. We’ll see how he’s going to handle it. It’s not going to be easy for him, that’s for sure."

Once Murray had been summarily thrashed, Federer reverted to gracious mode, proving once again that he is generally the mirror opposite of Djokovic by handling victory with the courtly manners he often fails to summon in defeat.

"It was a lucky shot," he said of the slapped return winner Djokovic hit with his eyes closed to save match point at the 2011 U.S. Open. In actual fact it was a lucky shot, even Djokovic acknowledged that, but just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s prudent to say it.

Of course, he’d made that "lucky" remark when he’d just emerged from the Twilight Zone of losing at a major in the semifinals to the same player for the second year in a row after once again holding two match points. Given that weird and unlikely circumstance, he comported himself in his post-match press conference about as well as one could expect. But not well enough, as it turned out, to spare himself critiques like one from the Guardian which stated that he’d offered up "a string of excuses and justifications which not only were barely sustainable given the evidence but seriously disrespected the winner."

Yet, for all of that, there have been times, when Federer played Nadal, that both men elevated themselves and the game by demonstrating precisely how to contend with those "two imposters" that are victory and defeat. For more often than not, the aftermath of their encounters has been imbued with their shared understanding that playing a sport is one thing and exemplifying it is something else.

This was apparent in 2008, when Federer lost to Nadal in the French Open final. The score was 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, a beat down so comprehensive that, at 5-0 in the third set, Nadal decided not to celebrate, as he did usually, by falling into the clay in relief, exhaustion and jubilation. Instead, he told himself, "You have to control the emotions."

Then it came time for Federer to address the crowd which had favored him and turned silent and disbelieving as he was pummeled into submission. His game had been so absent of authority and conviction that he was virtually unrecognizable, and the first words he spoke made plain that he knew this, and accepted it.

"Oui, c’est moi (Yes, it’s me)," he said.

A few weeks later, at Wimbledon, Nadal beat Federer again in a majestic slugfest instantly touted as the greatest match of all time.

"I am very happy for me," Nadal said, "but sorry for him, because he deserved this title, too."

It was, Federer would say, "probably my hardest loss by far" but after the trophy presentation, as Nadal walked by him, he gave him a discreet, friendly tap on the butt, and that slight gesture spoke to the sense of unparalleled comradeship that has prevailed between them – to the consternation of many of their fans – regardless of who holds the trophy and who holds the plate.

"Rafa keeps you thinking, and that's what the best players do to each other," Federer said. "That's what we both do to each other."

Another of many meaningful occurrences in the aftermath of that match took place when Nadal headed into the stands just after he won. As he and his family gathered in a jubilant embrace, a middle-aged man, standing beside them and wearing a red RF cap, stood and applauded. The man was Robert Federer, father of Roger, and he continued to applaud as Nadal, in a sudden, comradely gesture, went to shake the hand of Federer’s agent.

Later that summer, in the Player’s Garden at the U.S. Open, I saw Mr. Federer sitting alone and felt compelled to tell him that what he had done when Nadal triumphed over his son had been surprising and generous and special.

"Well," he said, "you have to be gracious."

But in fact you don’t. And that is why, in the grand and exhaustive battle that is tennis, it is so heartening when grace becomes part of the equation and why it will always matter so much. ★

About the Author

Elizabeth Kaye is an award-winning journalist and author who has been a contributing editor to Esquire, John Kennedy's George magazine, and Rolling Stone. She has written extensively about tennis and basketball; her profile of Phil Jackson appears in The Best American Sports Writing 2003.

She has written five books, among them Ain't No Tomorrow: Kobe, Shaq and the Making of a Laker's Dynasty and two E-Books: Sleeping with Famous Men and the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Lifeboat No. 8: An Untold Tale of Love, Loss and Surviving the Titanic.

Find her on Twitter at @elizkaye.