We like our sports stars to conform to a higher standard of humanity than ordinary humans. If you have the combination of talent, luck and nous to play for a living, you’re also expected to have the grace, dignity and ethics of a higher degree than most.
Is it fair? Is the burden of being a better person fair to tag onto to the gift of being a better sportsperson? Is it how it should be? Is it natural that when you’re in a privileged position, you must obviously conform to a high standard? I have no straight answers to this. It seems a laudable goal at times. It seems way too harsh at other times when young men from sometimes modest backgrounds are thrust into a lime-lit world that nothing in life has prepared them for.
It’s not quite fifty shades, but there’s a fair bit of grey there. But one fact is undeniable: when you do see an athlete who is as poised on the field as off it, it is beautiful. You cannot fail to be uplifted by it.
It was the sort of class that Rafael Nadal showed immediately after his fourth-round defeat to Gilles Muller in this year’s Wimbledon Championships. This had looked like Nadal’s year. A combination of injury issues and some natural wear and tear meant he didn’t have great results on Wimbledon’s lawns since 2012. Before that, the last five times he’d participated in Wimbledon, he had made the final. This was the year to show that the old skill not just lingered but had come roaring back. This seemed to be Rafa’s time, and that was borne out by his ultra-dominant shows in the first three rounds. And then to be outlasted in a fifth set – it’s like someone beating Virat Kohli because they were fitter. It just didn’t happen, couldn’t happen with Nadal. Until the end, I remained convinced as did many others, that despite facing more pressure on his serve, despite Muller having more chances to win, it would be Nadal’s resilience that would ultimately come through. He must have believed it too, after all he’d done it so often and been in such good form this year.
This defeat, therefore, must have been harder. Even those of us who expect more from our sportsmen would have forgiven Nadal if he decided to slip. He would have been allowed to scowl at the world, to be brusque with fans, to be retreat into a shell and lick his wounds. But what did we get? We got Nadal waiting to walk off court with his conqueror, we got him going over to sign several autographs for fans before making his way back to the changing rooms. We got a glimpse of a champion beyond the tennis court.
My tennis loyalties were set nearly a decade and a half back when I saw a Swiss maestro waltz across tennis courts and play like he was fantasy come to life. By rights, given that Roger Federer has lost to Nadal more often and more heartbreakingly than to anyone else, I should have harboured, if not ill-will than certainly no affection for Nadal. But it is impossible to do, because of the grace the man from Manacor unfailingly shows wherever he goes. And it is not a sentiment I’m alone in sharing. That is the beauty of champions – they make you rise above yourself too.
Does cricket do that? Like anything else in life, it does sometimes, and not so much at other times.
Ever since his transformation from bad-boy, rebel-without-a-cause to statesman-like leader, Kohli has provided several of those moments. He has known the right shot to play at the right ball, sometimes the outrageous shot even. But he has also known the right word to say at the right occasion. As recently as the Champions Trophy final, Kohli’s grace in defeat and generous praise of Pakistan was lauded and applauded by almost everyone, save a regrettable minority at The Oval who thought that would be the apt moment to boo the opposing captain.
Earlier, during India’s home season, Kohli took India to victory in an ODI against New Zealand after being dropped by Ross Taylor early on. Post-match, he endearingly commiserated with Taylor and recalled how tough those moments could be, because he had been at the receiving end of one when he had dropped Brendon McCullum who went on to make a triple-century.
Which is why it was disappointing to hear the same Kohli utter – there is no other way of putting it – falsehoods during one of his press conferences during the Champions Trophy. Asked about the swirling rumours of a fallout with Anil Kumble, the captain said among other things of those who had written it up that “they’re trying to create some nice livelihood. And that’s all we can say” while denying completely that there was any problem between him and the coach.
He later said, “I think here the lack of patience is very high and people speculate a lot from afar. When it is not true, nobody writes that it was our mistake. Nobody accepts their own mistakes. I have seen these things. That’s why I don’t focus on such things. If you’ve written, then tomorrow you have to take ownership of it. If it’s not there, I won’t speculate and even if I do, and I’m proved wrong then I’ll tell that ‘Yes, I was wrong’.”
If Kohli has to live up to those words he should, in all fairness, admit that he was wrong – not in wanting a change of coach, but in casting aspersions on those who had written that a problem existed. For insinuating that things were being made up, when they hadn’t. On the eve of a big tournament, not disclosing a rift that would invite unnecessary spotlight on the team is understandable, but why not do it without adding the layer of smear?
Maybe this is falls in the realm of expecting too much. After all, the Indian cricket ledger is markedly in the positive when it comes to Kohli. On the field naturally, but off it too. He’s human and allowed his slip-ups, and maybe we should just leave it at that since the past coach saga is now well and truly done with.
But like Kohli himself has shown often enough, and Nadal showed, when sporting champions turn graceful champions, there is an added frisson that elevates the moment and the athlete beyond their already exalted status.