Yeah, there’s a post where we’ve been collecting a lot of these year/decade end things, but I’m especially fond of these two, so they get their own post.
SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR
The way I define it, a bona fide sportsman is someone who wins with grace and style, and an individual who loses with dignity and without self pity. Champions make or break their reputations on how they handle the two extremes. They don’t allow their egos to get too inflated in victory, and refuse to let losses ruin their self esteem or cut too deeply into their pride. They learn how to balance the scales, find equanimity, and display character under either set of circumstances.
For me, the choice for this award was not difficult. This man was the dominant force in the game across the first five months of 2009, winning five tournaments, residing indisputably at No. 1 in the world, recording one important triumph after another. He got injured during the French Open, lost at Roland Garros for the first time, and could not defend his crown at Wimbledon. When he returned over the summer, his world was an altered place, his confidence diminished, his game never as commanding or imposing.
For the rest of the year, Rafael Nadal did not win another tournament, reaching only one final in his last seven events, struggling mightily against the other leading players. Although Nadal concluded an arduous season on a high note by helping lead Spain past the Czech Republic to win the Davis Cup, it was apparent that he had lost some crucial ground during his time away from the sport. After his comeback, he was beaten three times by Novak Djokovic without winning a set. He was crushed twice by Juan Martin Del Potro, twice by Nikolay Davydenko, and once each by Robin Soderling and Marin Cilic. Those were all straight set setbacks as well.
And yet, Nadal was remarkably gracious in defeat. He made few alibis, gave his opponents full marks, tried to play down his lingering physical problems. To me, the moment he sealed the Sportsman of the Year award was just after he had been blasted comprehensively off the court 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 by a top of the line Del Potro in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. It must have been humiliating to lose that overwhelmingly at the only Grand Slam event he has not yet captured.
Yet Nadal responded admirably. He waved to the crowd as he walked off the court, and stopped for a brief television interview with Pam Shriver. That was the day he affirmed once and for all what a towering sportsman he is. Nadal was humiliated in many ways by the thunderous ground game and excellent serving delivered by Del Potro, but he enlarged himself and his reputation with his post-match response.
Rafael Nadal, Sportsman of the Year. Was there really any other choice?
You’ll get no argument from me, Mr. Flink.
Much like the final itself, the readers’ poll was a close-run thing. Taking 17 per cent of the votes, Nadal/Federer edged Liverpool’s ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ (15 per cent) into second place, with Arsenal’s ‘Invincible’ season of 2003-04 coming third with 13 per cent. England’s Rugby World Cup victory in 2003 came fourth, with 11 per cent of the vote.
Read that again – in England, a tennis match against a Spaniard and a Swiss beat out football and rugby played by the locals. That ain’t too shabby.