Tag Archives: Simon Barnes

The greats master the art; the greatest reinvent the canvas.

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Australian Open Men’s Final
Melbourne, February 1st, 2009

Reinvention. It was as beautiful as the Melbourne night sky. Yet another Grand Slam final played out by two of the greatest ever tennis players, was a true study in reinvention.

That Rafael Nadal won his sixth Grand Slam and maintained his apparent hoodoo over Roger Federer in Grand Slam finals is but a sub-plot to what was on display here. Here was a tennis match we should discuss and savour for as long as we play tennis. That’s not because it was the greatest tennis match ever played. It wasn’t. Their previous Grand Slam dalliance at Wimbledon in 2008 was better for its sheer technical brilliance. But that’s not the point. The point is that we should talk about this match in the context of all tennis because it proved that we, as sports players and fans, and as people, must constantly reinvent what we do and how we do it if we are to better ourselves and better the way we live.

Nadal has reinvented the sport of tennis. He plays it in a way no other player before him has ever done. Where we once marvelled at the pure grace and sublime skill of Roger Federer, and the way he seemingly played his tennis racquet as a virtuoso violinist would play a Stradivarius, now we gasp at the way Nadal moulds the entire edifice of tennis – the court, the racquet, the ball, the point – into what he sees fit.

Where Federer mastered the art, Nadal has completely reinvented the canvas. It was unthinkable, even at this time last year, that Federer would have to raise his own supreme level. And yet this is now the inescapable truth. His tears in defeat revealed not just that he knows this to be true, but also that he knows not where that next level will come from.

Of course there were moments when Federer was in the ascendancy and a victory for the Swiss looked possible, notably in the third set before the tie-break and in the fourth set. But in the wash-up, was victory ever truly in doubt for the Spaniard? Federer later felt that he gave the fifth set to Nadal. Of course he did; he was broken mentally through the sheer emotional effort of winning the fourth.

Nadal has the terrifying ability to reinvent parts of his game as he plays. Imagine facing up to a player knowing that you constantly have to better your best efforts – literally evolve your game – just to win the next set. That is a daunting prospect, and one that not many players, in any sport, are always able to do. Yet that is the problem Nadal poses because he himself is doing it; evolving, set after set, match after match.

Here we have a player who is changing the way we see the sport of tennis. Nadal has reinvented the tennis player’s physique; he has reinvented the way the ball is struck; he has reinvented the notion of defensive tennis; he has reinvented the importance of the service break. But most importantly, he has reinvented the nature of the game to make it a combative sport where, like in boxing, pain is a barrier that must be burst through in order to clinch victory.

In his book The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes hypothesises that the great champions in all sports are great because when they don’t like their reality, they change it. They impose their will on their environment. Federer has achieved this out of necessity, but Nadal seems to do it out of habit. This is the difference between them and the apparent reason Nadal has beaten Federer in their last three Grand Slam final matches, even in Federer’s stronghold: Wimbledon. Nadal can reinvent any reality Federer attempts to impose. He has a grasp of the building blocks of physics that Federer can but marvel at. For now, anyway.

I say for now because champions like Roger Federer don’t just go away. They look deep in themselves and when all the tears have dried they find that next level. They appreciate what the likes of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg and Andre Agassi have done before them and they strive to prove, again and again, that sport is at its best when its players have to reinvent themselves and their sport and that only when we exceed our own expectations do we truly become better, not just as sports people but as people.

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Crikey! Aussies really are the sorest losers

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In his thoughtful book, The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes argues that the English are born to lose. He argues that losing is nothing to be ashamed of, simply something to manfully strive against. And because the English are so pre-disposed to sporting failure, it gives them an entirely different perspective on it, and indeed, on victory.

Oh how we Aussies could learn a thing or two from the English on how to lose well, especially when it comes to Rugby League, a sport in which Australia has experienced defeat about as many times as England has reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. When Australia finally lost the Rugby League World Cup after 33 years in possession of the trophy (have you ever heard of a more ridiculous dynasty in a sport that purports to have global status?), it was summed up in those two most punchy words, ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck.’

More specifically, it was ‘you’re the cunt who cost us the World Cup…you fucking cheat.’ This from the Kangaroos coach, Ricky Stuart, to Ashley Klein, the Briton who refereed the final game that Australia lost to New Zealand, 34-20. But that wasn’t the lot of it. The Aussies didn’t bother collecting their runners-up medals and even shirked the post-match dinner and drinks affair, in the process fobbing off members of the much-lauded Rugby League Team of the Century.

Is defeat really that hard to take? Really? And why is it seemingly so hard for Australia to lose? What is wrong with us?

Let’s go back to Barnes for a second. He reckons that when the national psyche is already prepared for failure, it makes the next defeat part of the ongoing cultural narrative, and in England’s case, makes their victories all the more important. When England win, they don’t really do the smug satisfaction thing. They do the ‘wow, that might not happen again for a really long time, good thing we won that’ thing.

Australia, on the other hand, becomes a collective basket case in the face of defeat. We’re a young country, and have spent the majority of our time proving we’re not just the rabble England chucked down south a couple of hundred years ago. So desperate are we to prove it, and so perfect an arena is sport in which to prove it, that a sporting defeat is like an assault on national identity. Consider the ‘big three’ defeats up till now:

1. England beats Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. This one really hurt. Australia got past the All Blacks in the semis (which no-one expected, don’t believe anyone who says otherwise), then got done by Johnny Wilkinson’s left boot. On home ground. The press then was all about how Wilkinson beat Australia; that England didn’t have a ‘team’ in the way Australia has a ‘team’; that only Australia wanted to play rugby the way it’s meant to be played. What a load of hogwash. It’s not like Australia didn’t see Wilkinson coming. It’s not like England’s forwards didn’t do their job in making space for him. It’s not like Australia didn’t depend on kicking just as much as England. The real tragedy of that result is that Elton Flatley’s supreme kicking in that game has been forgotten in the years since.

2. England beats Australia in the 2005 Ashes. This was simply a shock. No-one, perhaps even the English themselves, really saw this one coming. The media wrote it off as a weird, flukey event; that England were just lucky in victory, whilst Australia were brave in defeat. Attention immediately turned to ‘the next one.’ Rather than congratulate the English on a job well done, Australia started talking about how they would win the 2007 series 5-0. They did, incidentally, but starting that chat in 2005 before the England team had even done their lap of Trafalgar Square smacked of a badly banged up ego.

3. Italy beats Australia in the 2006 World Cup. This was more about naivety that anything else. Having qualified, Australians figured the Socceroos might as well go on and win the damn thing because, you know, we’re pretty good at other sports. But that is where international football had a surprise in store. International football doesn’t like plucky upstarts. It likes the established order. And Italy are the most established of that order. So when Lucas Neill ‘tripped’ Fabio Grosso to concede a penalty in the last minute of their round-of-16 match, a nation pointed a collective finger at the ‘cheats’ of world football, which included the referees. We’re honest, you’re liars. We’re physical, you’re weak. But that is what you get for supposing that the international order will be turned on its head because Australia finally managed to turn up.

And so back to Rugby League and this seemingly impossible defeat, and our reaction to it. Are we actually the worst losers in the world? My gut tells me yes. Where a country sees defeat as an outrage on our national sovereignty rather than what it simply is – the most common part of sport – is when we need to rethink things. Maybe we should just do what the Americans do and play amongst ourselves yet call everything a ‘world championship.’ That way we’ll never have to experience being beaten by another country. Yep, the sore loser in me thinks that sounds alright.

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