A Sporting Life: Fair Play

”Fair Play”, illustration by Irina Georgescu exclusively for Classiq

During his Game, Schett and Mats show, from the currently undergoing Australian Open, Mats Wilander, a great tennis player, one of the best tennis analysts and commentators and a personal favourite of mine, said that tennis is about a lesson in life. By respecting the rules, you respect the others. And, by that, I think he meant opponents, spectators, viewers watching from home, everyone.

I have wanted to write this article since the US Open women’s final back in September. I was so outraged by Serena Williams’ crass lack of sportsmanship and by the American public’s horrible behaviour cheering that sort of conduct that I felt I had to talk about it, especially that so many in the media transformed Williams’ outburst into a much needed expression of contemporary feminism. It was, in fact, just another display of the current feminist outrage culture that has substituted analysis. By her disgraceful act, she not only overshadowed her competitor’s once-in-a-lifetime achievement (you only win your first grand slam trophy once), but she did a disservice to every human being, not just to every woman. For weeks I engaged in heated arguments with anyone who tried to find any kind of excuse for her behaviour. Because it was inexcusable.

What she did, although not a singular outing during a grand slam tournament (her matches with Jennifer Capriati and Kim Clijsters come to mind), was by far one of the ugliest things I have seen in sport, not just in tennis. Chris Evert, a true tennis legend, who was standing on the podium for the ceremony after the match, said for Time magazine that she just wanted off. “I’ve never seen or felt anything like it. The negativity, the anger.”

As enraged as I was though, I decided to let it rest and take a step back to calm down. Regardless of my opinion, I thought it would do no more than contribute to the 2018 US Open final being remembered for the wrong reason. It would be unfair. Unfair to the champion, unfair to the one who was the bigger human being, Naomi Osaka. A 20-year-old player who, after having rallied through the tournament, was composed from the very beginning and took the first set before any of Williams’ issues with the umpire began to surface. A player who maintained her focus, not being distracted by what was happening around her. A player who would have defeated her opponent even without the penalties. A player who was rightfully assuming her place among champions. It was meant to be a celebratory moment. It was meant to be her moment. And that’s what everybody should remember.

That being said though, I would still like to recommend you read Martina Navratilova’s opinion in The New York Times. I think she made her point so elegantly. She got it right. She said that the question tennis players have to ask themselves is: “What is the right way to behave to honour our sport and to respect our opponents?”

Addressing Williams’ argument that if she had been a man, she would have gotten away with it, Navratilova continued: “But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behaviour that no one should be engaging in on the court. There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.” This is what it is all about. It is our children whom this sort of behaviour will have the biggest impact on. And we want our children to look up to the right role models. We need our children to love sport, for their wellbeing, but also for having real, worthy, healthy models to look up to. I used to think tennis, more than any other sport, provided this kind of model through its champions. Being the winner of the most grand slam titles, in men or women, doesn’t necessarily make you a champion. And what she did there only makes her a bad sport.

So today I am highlighting a few of the most memorable fair play moments in tennis. Let’s learn from these true champions. Let’s learn by the right example.

Roland Garros, 1982
Mats Wilander – José Luis Clerc
(7-5, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5)

At the end of the semifinal against José Luis Clerc, Mats Wilander requested replay of the match ball as he did not want to win the game due to a questionable referee decision.

He led 5-1 in the fourth set, but Clerc managed to level the score at 5-5, looking good to send the match into a decider. Then Clerc made four consecutive unforced errors to give Wilander the 11th game at love. Moments later, Clerc was serving at 30-40 and the ball was called out. Clerc complained about the call, but the chair umpire, Jacques Dorfman, had already descended from his chair. However, instead of going to the net to receive the congratulatory handshake, Wilander stood in the backcourt shaking his head. He walked over to the umpire and said a few words: “I told him I can’t win like this. The ball was good. We should play two balls.” The players returned to their positions to replay the point. Clerc sent a backhand into the net and Wilander won.

Dorfman said he was convinced that the ball had been out, but he allowed the point to be replayed because both players agreed to it. But he added: “In all my experience, I have never known a gesture of sportsmanship like that on a match point.” It was not the first time Wilander had given back a match point. He had done it before, in a junior tournament in Italy. That is what great champions are made of.

Mat’s extraordinary display of sportsmanship garnered him the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy. The Swede, 17 years of age, also went on to win his first grand slam title and his first Roland Garros. He was the first (and youngest) player to win the tournament at his first attempt. Nadal would be the second, 23 years later.

Melbourne, Australia, 2015
Rafael Nadal – Tim Smyczek
(6-2, 3-6, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5)

As Nadal served for the match in the second-round, ahead by 6-5, 30-0 in the fifth set, a spectator shouted out during his first serve and the ball flew long. Smyczek caught the attention of the chair umpire and insisted that Nadal be given another chance. Nadal was given another first serve opportunity and he gave Smyczek a thumbs-up sign and a small wave. It was a selfless act from the American, especially when you consider that he was just two points from defeat at the time. “It was a great example, what he did today,” Nadal said.

“I think he deserves the sportsmanship award for the next 10 years, and I’m going to be pushing for that,” said Benito Perez-Barbadillo, Nadal’s public relations manager, who leapt to his feet in the box applauding after Smyczek’s sporting gesture. “I’m sure that Rafa would agree and everybody would agree. I’ve never seen that, and I’ve been in tennis for 19 years. Unbelievable.”

“The thing that really goes beyond anything else, beyond the comeback, the cramps, is how nice it is to see that sportsmanship is there at the top level,” Prez-Barbadillo added. “And that’s what we have to show kids, and that’s what we had. It’s something to acknowledge. It doesn’t surprise me because he’s known as a very nice guy, but to do that in a match? Wow. There’s no words. Class act.”

Wimbledon, 2018
Rafael Nadal – Juan Martín del Potro
(7-5, 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4)

In a fantastic five-set Wimbledon quarter-final, Rafael Nadal and Juan Martín del Potro not only played a tennis of the highest quality, but also displayed the kind of sportsmanship and class only few tennis players are capable of.

I am a Rafa fan through and through and I have talked about him before, of all the reasons I admire him for, besides his hard-work, resilience, competitiveness, determination and achievements on the tennis court. He is different and unique and, above all, he has an innate humanity and humility that will always set him apart. And it disheartens me that he has never been given the same credit as Federer by the media. Nadal’s smallest of mistake has been used to discredit his achievements, whereas Federer has always been favoured, regardless of win or loss. I know they both have worked hard for their success, but everything seems to have made it harder for Nadal to achieve his greatness, and that’s why he is the greatest player to me, and to others as well.

Juan Martín del Potro is another great tennis player who has the stuff that only true champions are made of. Dedication, fair play, modesty and down-to-earthness. At the 2017 French Open, when Nicolás Almagro had to retire early in the first set of his second round match against del Potro and simply broke down on court in despair, DelPo displayed incredible sportsmanship, compassion and concern for Almagro. He has been there, he knows the agony of defeat because of injury, which probably deprived him of being multiple Grand Slam champion.

During his match against Nadal at Wimbledon, when Rafa slipped on grass a couple of times in the final set and fell on the back, del Potro came to the net and made sure his opponent was okay. Then, when the match ended, Juan Martín fell shattered on the ground – “I wanted to stay there all night long,” he later said. Nadal jumped over the fence, went to the baseline and embraced him in a moving touch of sportsmanship. The moment was captured by countless photographers and del Potro later wrote on his Instagram: “This photo says it all.” It did.

As much as I love the game and its grandness, it is humbling moments like these that remain the most unforgettable.

Note: The “Fair Play” print is available for purchase exclusively on Classiq Shop.
editorial sources: “Wilander Topples Clerc, Gains Final”, by Nick Stout for The New York Times / “Another Loss for Nice Guys; This One Wins Praise”, by Ben Rothenberg for The New York Times / “What Serena Got Wrong”, by Martina Navratilova for The New York Times / “Her Turn”, by Sean Gregory for Time magazine

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