You may not have seen the match. You might not even care. This is tennis, an “Oh, really?” afterthought for many sports fans.
However, Sunday’s finals of the U.S. Open in which Spain’s Rafael Nadal beat Daniil Medvedev from Russia in five thrilling sets was something to behold. If not behold, admire because it had everything that is good about sports as well as life.
High-level tennis was only a part of it.
Medvedev, the 23-year-old uppity upstart, had embraced the role of the villain earlier in the tournament after launching a ball in frustration at the umpire, making an obscene gesture toward his opponent Feliciano Lopez and snatching a towel from a ballboy. Medvedev was behaving so poorly that he was booed by the New York crowd and this took some doing because New Yorkers have a history of tolerating sketchy behavior in their tennis players.
However, Medvedev wasn’t comfortable playing the villain and apologized for being “a jerk” on the court after a match leading to the finals. Who does that and especially a 20-something? Usually, that’s the age to dig in and double down on your mistakes as if they are some sort of badge of honor.
In Nadal, not only was Medvedev facing one of the greatest players of all time but, more importantly, one of the game’s truest sportsmen. In addition to his brilliant tennis, Nadal has made a career of not throwing his racquet, insulting his opponents and berating umpires no matter how much pressure he has been under and how big the stage.
Somebody raised him right. Somebody like his parents and family. Somebody who encouraged his ferocity without having it overwhelm his sense of propriety.
Nadal wasn’t the only gentleman on the court. Medvedev never lost his cool during their five-hour-plus match and after it was over couldn’t have been more complimentary toward his opponent, the tournament and the crowd, which had rained boos on him just a few rounds earlier.
Medvedev talked about being human, making mistakes and trying to learn from them. He was humble, funny and smart. If you weren’t a fan, you became one.
It was refreshing. It was surprising. It was inspiring.
This is unusual and nowadays, not the norm.
Athletes are just as likely to celebrated for their precocity rather than their manners. Professional athletes are only the public face of what has become a breathtaking loss of manners and civility.
Greeting people has become a lost art (and I know I am becoming pretty humorless here). I’m not sure what’s difficult about shaking somebody’s hand firmly and looking them in the eye but it seems to be harder to do then hitting a backhand overhead.
Credit parents who teach their children well. Credit parents (and coaches) who would as soon tolerate a beehive in their living room as they would a brat on or off the court.
Watching players comport themselves so well doubles the pleasure of watching two great players leave every ounce of sweat and energy on the court.
Sunday, everybody won. Nadal, Medvedev and the rest of the world.