James Lawton: No disgrace in losing to man who represents the essence of what sport can achieve

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:07

If this – Andy Murray may now be reflecting – is Rafa Nadal on the slide, hitting that time of a great sportsman's life when the best of his talent is in the past, we can all only wonder anew at the depth of spirit and competitive passion that has gone into the man who once again yesterday made the red clay of Paris his most natural terrain.

Nadal's grace in both victory and defeat, at the venerable age of 25, is already an enduring motif of all that is best in professional sport and we had another example of this when he wrapped his arms around his semi-final victim Murray and told him, without any kind of flip, or weary, irony, that he has sufficient talent to one day claim a Grand Slam title.

It may just be true because, if Nadal was insatiable in his desire to get the chance to win his sixth French and 10th Grand Slam title tomorrow, he still had to survive some moments of brilliant defiance from the 24-year-old Scotsman. They were, it is true, passing interludes in Nadal's 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 triumph but if Murray was inevitably required to yield, if he did sometimes scowl and gesticulate and shout his frustration to his party in the box, there was still a sharp improvement on the performance and demeanour he displayed while being eviscerated by Novak Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open early this year.

Perhaps it was the Nadal Effect. Maybe it was that Murray, so often lost in the world he occupies with an entourage which, it often seems, lacks a dominating, guiding presence, accepted that, with such a man as Nadal on the other side of the net, there was a certain obligation to behave in the way of a fully grown-up and utterly committed champion.

In his moment of victory Nadal contemplated the challenge ahead of him as Djokovic, twice his victor this year, and Roger Federer prepared to come on to court for the second semi-final. He said whatever happened it would be a considerable challenge against "the best player of today and the best player of history". But where does that leave the man from Mallorca? Still, you had to say, in the most entirely appropriate company.

The weight of his shot, the certainty of his will, was a reminder of the privilege of all those who were in the Wimbledon Centre Court when he beat Federer three years ago in a final that was so good, so filled with character and brilliance, you knew, as it unfolded over five tumultuous sets, it would be with you as long as you lived and cared to recall the greatest moments in the old cavalcade of sport.

Three years on, the greatness of that occasion is so entrenched that you can only hope that the long- term effects of injury do not subvert his attempt to become the greatest winner in the history of the game as he attempts to surpass the achievements of Federer and the extraordinary momentum of Djokovic. This is not, of course, because Nadal has somehow lifted himself beyond the labours of all those other superb players in the history of the game but because so often, and yesterday was another such occasion, he seems to represent the essence of what sport can achieve.

Nadal overwhelmed Murray not only with the force of his game at those pivotal moments which shape every contest but because he was so supremely in charge of himself.

A misconceived or failed shot was not a provocation to scream or gesture but rather to embrace a sharp little bout of self-examination. Whatever he does, and so much of it is sublime, is subject to a biting analysis on the run. His uncle and mentor, the former professional footballer Toni, says: "Since he was a young boy I have tried to explain to him that whatever he achieves in sport it will only be a part of his life. If you are successful at sport it is great, but what good is it if you do not understand what is really important in life? One of those things is that you should always try to behave well, both on the tennis court and off it."

Such has been the imperative of the man who may yet prove to be the most successful of all tennis players and who yesterday gave Murray a new insight into the scale of the challenge he must meet if he is to translate superb natural talent into some foothold on the very highest echelon of the game.

Murray had some beautiful moments, nerveless aces and moments of adventure and brilliance that gave Nadal moments of pause, even fleeting self-doubt, but he never reached that point where there could be confidence that he could truly stop the tide. He never parted company with all of his demons and his doubts.

What he needs, a growing number of the tennis cognoscenti believe, is someone to take hold of him, rather as the old football pro gathered up Nadal, and tell him that he must concentrate his mind in the most demanding way. He must see that, as absurd as it might seem, at 24 the years of opportunity are already slipping away.

In the meantime, there is the fresh evidence that as Nadal watched his greatest rival Federer fight the years and steal the first set from Djokovic last night, his focus has never been more fixed.

It is set on those heights he achieved against the Swiss master at Wimbledon that day when everyone who saw it agreed that they could spend the rest of their lives around tennis courts and football fields and boxing rings and never again see a contest so beautifully engaged – or a victory so thrillingly realised.

If you had to pick out a moment from that contest it would probably be a backhand played down the line by Federer at a point of maximum pressure. It was so brilliantly conceived, so bold that for a moment you might have imagined it would break the spirit of the younger man, invite him to subside into the belief that he was pitted against a talent too deep, too relentless. It was an idea that did not survive the next fusillade of shots from the big left-hander.

There were a few moments yesterday when you wondered if Murray might just have undermined the conviction of Nadal. This was so when he seemed to have turned around the first set that had seemed to be ebbing away from him with an absolute certainty when Nadal won four straight games and unfurled shots of breathtaking power and judgement.

It was an exhilarating possibility when Murray played shots of memorable touch and delicacy – and when he unleashed backhands which lacked little, if any, of the lacerating power of those from his opponent. Yet soon enough we knew it was an illusion and that for the talented Scotsman there are major strides to be made if he is ever to intrude significantly into the space of the three men who now so formidably block his progress.

Of these it was perhaps fitting that Rafa Nadal should be the first to claim his place in tomorrow's final. He did it with all the accomplishment and character that have so often helped him annex a corner of Paris in the early summer. He did it with a style that takes us to the heart of sport as it should be.

It cannot always be so, of course, but at Roland Garros yesterday we had the heartening reminder that as long as Rafa Nadal plies his trade there will be the most uplifting of guarantees. It is provided by a man who understands the power and the beauty of what he does.

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