Winning a championship makes you a winner; it does not make you a champion. Having followed the progress of the young Spaniard Rafael Nadal for more than five years, it was with a lump in my throat that I watched Nadal brought to his knees by the Serb Novak Djokovich in the last set of the match. Djokovitch was not the winner; not in my eyes and not in the eyes of ninety per cent of the spectators. It is easy to hold up a trophy and smile after having just scraped through to win; it takes a champion to hold back the tears as he gracefully accepts the loss and showers the crowd with praise.
Rafael Nadal the come-back kid of all time
Rafael can be down two sets to one and come from behind to be in the lead again and do his characteristic war dance. It was a tennis game such as I had never seen – almost six hours in duration – hard volleys, hard grunts, sheer guts and determination, and an energy that spoke of animal-like qualities. He is the tennis champion of the masses, his number-one idol being Roger Federer, who also cried when he lost to Nadal at the Australian Open in 2009.
I have come to know Nadal from the comfort of my own home. I watch how he jumps from one leg to the other, in readiness for the game. I watch how he carefully places his bottles during the match. I watch how he picks at his pants, pushes his hair back and waits for the ball. I felt his pain when his parents separated and wished I could tell him that he will make it through the difficult times and be happy again. Nadal is my fictional son and reminds me of my own son – hardworking, a goal setter, and determined to succeed.
If you were here, Rafa, I would tell you that it is all right to cry. Even champions cry. However, there is one thing I have to tell you – I did not much like the occasional display of arrogance I sometimes witnessed on the court. It pained me because you are better than that. Aspire to be like Roger Federer not only as a tennis great but as a humble human being. Roger is the most gracious of all the tennis players out there. There is no swank – and despite all his wins and his accolades, he knows that you, Raphael Nadal, are a true champion and knows in his heart that he will not beat you again. But winning isn’t only about how many championships you have won, Nada. It’s how it shapes you after the footlights are off. I will be watching you.