Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — gentlemen and players
Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a couple of half-decent tennis players knocking about. Roger Federer has just won the French Open and, in so doing, has amassed a record-equalling 14 grand-slam titles. He is now widely acknowledged as the greatest tennis player to have flicked a racket.
Then there is Rafael Nadal, a 23-year-old Spaniard whose stature is measured by his early defeat at Roland Garros being regarded as one of the most momentous sporting upsets of modern times. More than a few of us expect him to bounce back at Wimbledon — assuming he overcomes a knee problem — and eventually to overhaul Federer’s career grand-slam record.
But there is something else about these two sportsmen beyond the belief that they play tennis from the heavens — they also happen to be jolly good blokes.
Now, I know that we have all seen politicians with smiley, back-slapping, baby-hugging, kitten-stroking public personas who have turned out, on closer inspection, to be odious charlatans. But in the case of Rafa and Roger, it is not just an image.
It turns out that pretty much all the people who know them best — journalists, practice partners, tournament organisers, even their fellow competitors — regard them as the kind of decent, warm-spirited, courteous, honest and sensitive human beings that they appear to be to the rest of us. To put it another way, two of the greatest players in history also happen to be men with values, perspective and morality.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this deeply gratifying. When I watch them I really do feel — alongside my admiration for their skill, finesse and competitiveness — a profound sense of gratitude that they are, first and foremost, honourable. Men who would rather lose than claim a dubious decision, men who would rather not play than behave disrespectfully towards their opponents, men who, in straining every sinew and mobilising every fibre in pursuit of success, understand that victory can only be judged in a wider, richer context.
I find this gratifying because I used to be a sportsman and when I was coming through the ranks there was a powerful idea in the air. It went something like this: to get to the top you have to be selfish, nasty and, on occasions, morally dubious. The coaches at the time (we are talking the mid-1980s) even had a term for it: they called it “necessary selfishness”.
It was really part of the wider mood of the nation, of the world, the idea that getting ahead was about stepping on other people’s toes or, if necessary, their necks. The idea that laissez faire applied not just to markets, but to values. The idea that the cash in the offshore account more than justified the dodgy dealing, insider trading or whatever else, which went into its amassing. In short, it was the idea that winning is everything and the rest is for suckers.
As an economic philosophy this was corrosive enough, but translated into the ethics of sport, it was, in some ways, even more troubling. It meant that kids coming through the ranks felt a sense of aggressive entitlement. It meant that they edged towards a moral justification for cheating, even when confronted with their actions, but, more perniciously, it created a wider malaise within the sporting community that acquiesced in the idea that anything goes.
And you want to know a funny thing? It never had a scrap of justification, not even as a description of top sportsmen, far less as a justification for dodgy behaviour. I have found, swanning around the world of sport, that there is no correlation whatsoever between selfishness and success. No connection between nastiness and accomplishment. Contrary to most people’s perspective, top sportsmen are no more or less cavalier to other people’s feelings — on average — than the rest of us.
Sure, sport is about winning, but many of the greatest sportsmen and women I have met never lost sight of the context. It is no good winning if that means forfeiting one’s soul. It is no good winning if it means cheating, swindling or doping. Winning is not merely about claiming the final point, but about expressing a wider philosophy of sport and of life.
Nadal and Federer demonstrate a deep and implicit understanding of this truth in almost everything they do. They are not perfect, they are not morally flawless and they would certainly not dream of thrusting themselves forward as role models. They are just two men who happen to be very good at tennis, who are hard-working, who have strong wills and deep wells of self-belief, and who also recognise that winning at all costs is not winning at all.
Values are not an optional extra, they provide the foundations. I no longer even bother to argue when lefties condemn the free market as inherently corrupting and amoral. They just don’t get it, and never will. The truth is that capitalism, while far from perfect, cannot work without a majority willing to play by the rules, without individuals demonstrating on a minute-by-minute basis their trustworthiness, reliability, civility and self-reliance.
Without those values, without a willingness to behave honestly even when the opposite may be to one’s advantage, the costs of supervision and control would overwhelm the productive capacity of any economy at any time, now or in the future. Capitalism — like all human systems — rests ultimately not on an economic precept, but a moral one. We should never lose sight of that, in society or in sport.
In the greatest victory of my table tennis career, over Jörgen Persson, Sweden’s world champion, one of my shots grazed the edge of the table so finely that nobody saw it.
Not me. Not the spectators. Not the umpires. But Persson did. The score was 19-19 in the deciding fifth game and the stakes could not have been higher. We were both seeking to qualify for the 1996 Olympics. We were both at the limits of our endurance. We were both fighting as if our lives depended on it. And, what’s more, he and I did not get on particularly well.
But Persson did not hesitate, not for an instant, nodding in my direction, signalling what had happened and turning the scoreboard in my favour. I was so surprised, so touched, that I said something that still echoes in my ears today: “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am sure,” he said.
Afterwards, having won the match, I approached Persson and thanked him for his integrity. “I wanted to win,” he said. “But not if it meant winning like that.”