For the second straight year, we’re left wondering what might have been as Rafael Nadal fell in the quarterfinals on a Wednesday in Melbourne. Last year it was a knee injury that derailed his bid to repeat as the Australian Open champion following his breakthrough 2009 victory, causing him to withdraw from his match against Andy Murray while already down two sets to love. This year, once again overworked on a schedule that was pared down to prevent such happenings yet still taxes an overworked body due to a hard-driving style that is Nadal’s trademark, the Spaniard came up lame with an apparent left hamstring injury.
Yet this time he soldiered on, against compatriot David Ferrer, absorbing the punishment all while recognizing that this would be his last match in Melbourne for 2011. Barely into the first set, he continued through to the end of a 6-4 6-2 6-3 ass-kicking by Ferrer, gamely gritting out every point despite his obvious lack of full fitness and even getting in some dazzlers of his own along the way. He wasn’t able to crank on his serve as he is capable. Yet he still battled, knowing what the detractors would say if he pulled out of the tournament at this stage once more. He figured that, unlike the knee last year, this injury was one that was not guaranteed to get worse with more play. And against such a good friend as Ferrer, he wasn’t going to dishonor the sport with the perception that he was soft in tough times.
Nadal on one leg is still better than ninety percent of the men plying their trade on the ATP Tour. But against Ferrer, who is one of the most consistently fit players in the men’s game, a player is going to have to be able to run. Nadal’s fellow Spaniard is a legitimate top-ten contender, undefeated in 2011 after winning the pre-Slam Auckland tournament. Even had he prevailed against Ferrer, though, it would have been unlikely that Nadal was able to continue through the draw for a semifinal clash with Andy Murray.
It ends the debate once and for all about whether or not an Australian Open victory — a Rafa Slam, if you will — would be as legitimate as the calendar-year feats last pulled off by Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969. Wherever you stand on that divide, it becomes moot with this loss in the quarters. That does not detract from the impressive run he had, but if he can come back to have a run in the other three Slams like he had in 2010 we will have to start asking ourselves if Melbourne might be the stumbling block toward a calendar Slam that Paris has consistently been for Federer.
Yet it does not derail the truth that Nadal has blossomed into one hell of a warrior on the tennis court. Contrast that with the perception, fair or not, that washed over Jay Cutler after the Chicago Bears quarterback came out of the NFC Championship game at home against Green Bay with what eventually turned out to be a Grade II MCL sprain. Twitter was awash with vitriol from NFL players past and present, all excoriating Cutler for perceived lack of cajones after his departure from the turf.
Some blasted him for coming out of the game in the first place. Some blasted him for standing on the damn thing if it was so bad he had to come out of the game. Some wondered why he wasn’t on crutches, or sitting with an ice pack, or why he was on the sidelines altogether. All were written from the mindset that Cutler was, in effect, a pansy — a QUITTER, even — who didn’t deserve to call himself a loyal teammate of his fellow Bears.
These days the op-ed page can often travel faster than the hard news, anyone and everyone able to get into the game 140 characters at a time. And news eventually leaked out that it was the medical staff which made the call about taking him out of the game. Yet it is the perception that lives on, as people routinely have reason to be skeptical about what is written in an NFL injury report. Ultimately every athlete has a unique pain threshold, though, just as every civilian sitting in the stands has his own limitations. But that also doesn’t stop us from projecting our own thresholds into another person’s situation.
It is human nature to think about how we would react if facing the same misfortune as a contemporary — especially when their comportment is less than up to our standards. Often we assume we would handle ourselves with more grace under duress than is displayed. Whether or not that is truly the case is a matter of mere conjecture… and only sometimes past precedent.
It is telling that Cutler was lambasted for stepping out of the field of play for a similar injury as Nadal suffered in Australia a year ago. Both athletes were ridiculed for showing greater long-term consideration for their long-term health and career — for ejecting from a lost cause — than for fighting grimly at less than his full potential. As Nadal alluded after the match in his press conference, it was part of that perception that he was able to blame all his setbacks on injury that kept him battling against Ferrer to the end. And perhaps it is most telling about us, the fans and media and other athletes which follow ravenously along with every twist and turn, that we praise Nadal and rip Cutler in their handling of misfortunes…
Misfortune, after all, is the last thing we want to hear about. Athletes are meant to represent the physical ideal that our species can yield, and as such we long for that symbolism of perfection to extend across the spectrum. We want to hear about Swiss dynamo Didier Cuche winning the FIS World Cup downhill on the infamous Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel, Austria and taking the lead in the season standings… not the horrifying training crash that has Hans Grugger still stabilized in an induced coma following emergency brain surgery in nearby Innsbruck. We love hearing about the dominance of Michael Phelps in the water, medal after golden medal… and cringe when faced with an athlete like Fran Crippen, done in by his craft as his life was taken away the open sea. We want a championship vintage without all the inevitable human frailties.
As George Plimpton wrote of his experience with the Detroit Lions in his book Paper Lion, part of the reason fans cheered at his failure to guide the offense as quarterback in the preseason scrimmage was that they did not want the illusion of superhuman warriors tainted by a layman’s success. But we also long for those stories of failure, those dirty little indulgences that allow us to feel less pain when our perceptions about ourselves don’t line up with our actions in real life. Their ailments and blunders help blunt the pain of our own. And when our heroes are forced to deal with a setback, it is their comportment in coping with their humanity that determines our reaction in retrospect.
And then we move on with our lives. After the furor dies down, those athletes who are rendered mortal soon get cast into the back of our minds, only to be dredged back out to the forefront if they reprise their former greatness. Out of sight, out of mind, it is only the fan whose team is dependent on an injured player’s production that remembers the fallen. The casual follower, without any rooting interest in a given commodity, adjusts to new faces and new names as the attrition mounts. We don’t mind recognizing our sports heroes as mortal, but we don’t want to confront the fact for too long lest the illusion of greatness fade.
Because as valuable as they are, ultimately athletes are commodities to be bought, sold, traded, sponsored, dropped, revered, castigated, and ultimately cast aside once their shelf life expires. For every Wayne Gretzky whose memory is recapped in platitudinal retrospectives as he reaches his 50th birthday, there are hundreds of contemporaries who played alongside and against him over the years who live their post-retirement lives in anonymity. Fans compile their all-time lists, separating the wheat and leaving the chaff of sports history to compost back into our fading memories. Only a select few reach Rushmore levels in their chosen sports, and the rest become matters of arcane trivia to be parsed and pondered by future generations.
And yet it still is that, in this interconnected era, we increasingly try to parse down legacy in real time. Every gutsy performance is an irrefutable symbol of greatness; every departure from established norms of composure are greeted with suspicious glares. And while we need both sides of the coin, we still long for heads to come up every time even though we know probability dictates otherwise.
We know that every victor comes with a vanquished party attached. We know that injuries are inevitable when imperfect human bodies — even the specimens closest to that elusive and forever unattainable perfection — are pushed to strive for new limits of achievement. Yet being confronted with the yin of frailty that counterbalances the yang of success still is disconcerting.
After all, victory is thrilling… and defeat, as the old slogan goes, brings nothing but agony. It seems that we want to judge our athletes by their positive accomplishments. That, after all, is how you elevate yourself toward that Rushmore echelon. But it is in the most agonizing moments, when not merely the opponent has defeated an athlete but they’ve also been betrayed by his or her own body, that we render our harshest judgments.
In a sport like tennis, the direction of this reflection and judgment falls directly on one head and one head alone. In team sports, though, an injury casts an athlete right under the same microscope. And when our perception doesn’t match up with what we deem acceptable demeanor in a given situation, that onus on instant opinion becomes even more pronounced.
In our digital age, the pronouncements fly before the contest is complete. Technology allows for an increasing supply of information to fly at us… but it also allows for misinformation to more quickly disseminate as well. The important part is to remember that the cerebral vortex of this worldwide information network is just that — a vortex, collecting every snippet whether worthwhile or worthy only of wariness. The only thing separating the Nadals from the Cutlers are our own perception of the visual facts with which we’re confronted…