This article isn’t easy for me to write because more than loving Rafael Nadal, I also tremendously respect him. I respect his hard-assed determination, his bull-like persistence when playing a tennis. I like that he thinks for himself, rarely looks up at his box as his mind whizzes along, coming up with strategies and calculations to help him figure out how to crush his opponent. I like that he shows no mercy, that he will force-feed you a crushing loss even if he has to reach across the net and comfort you afterward. I like my tennis players to have grit and determination and fighting power.
I do not like my tennis players quitting on an incomplete match. There is something wrong with that. It tastes of an awareness that a loss is on the horizon but an unwillingness to confront it. It’s a cowardly way out. And it’s unfair to the opponent.
There are many reasons why Nadal’s decision to quit being down after two sets and 0-3 in the third to Andy Murray, was wrong. But because I am a psychologist, I will focus on the psychological reasons why it was unfair. And to do this I have to digress and tell you a bit about gestalt theory. See the things you learn from coming to this tennis blog?
The essence of Gestalt theory is captured in the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. What this means is that as human beings we are inclined towards holism, and inspired by totality. Take for instance, if I write the word “S M _ K E”, your mind will intuitively fill in the missing letter “O” and you will actually see the word “SMOKE”. Similarly, perhaps you’ve had the experience of turning off the TV in the middle of a gripping movie and going to bed. You may then dream an ending to the movie. Your mind will complete the story so that it makes sense. As humans, we always need closure. If you know why your boyfriend broke up with you, it becomes easier to move on, than if he sneaks out in the middle of the night with no parting explanation. We humans do not do well with unfinished business.
So when Andy Murray, apparently somewhat irked, commented that he would have liked to have finished the match, I entirely understand and agree with him. Not that Rafa owes Andy anything, but really it’s in poor taste to leave the guy hanging there at 3-0 in the third. Who knows what kind of rest Andy got that night. Who knows how often his mind re-created the match as he slept, giving him the closure denied him by Rafa’s decision to quit.
Having said this, I assume that Rafa was indeed injured. I do not doubt this for a moment. But I would have preferred to see him get the knee professionally wrapped by a trainer, and do his best to give Murray his remaining three games. It was only three games. Murray was playing inspired tennis. In fact, he was so good that I am quaking for Federer come Sunday. This was as brilliant and as superb as tennis can get. The sheer beauty and variety of his shots, the intelligence of his shot selection, the pride of his mama in the stands. All of that deserved completion. And if that meant that Rafa had to stand there hobbled to one spot while Murray threw down winner after winner, he should have done it. Rafa has crushed many men who took their beatings like men, including the same Andy Murray on the same court this same time last year. Rafa should have manned up and accepted his own beat-down. That was the right thing to do.
Which brings me to Novak Dkokovic and his match against my sweetheart Tsonga. This was the first time for the tournament that I actually got to see Tsonga play which is why I have not mentioned him before. And when I looked at that match a second time, it becomes clearer that Djokovic was distressed from the first set. He was sweating up a storm and fighting to breathe from the very first set. There were moments when he looked long and hard at his box as if trying to send a message. I did not realize any of this until I saw the match a second time.
And as much as I have ragged on Djokovic for his over responsiveness to his people, I have grown new respect for him because he stuck it out. What an unexpected role reversal! Rafa quits, Nole sticks it out. He went off the courts, vomited, came back and played some more. That’s what I expect of the players who are paid an obscene amount of money for their efforts. It’s the least that Rafa could have done.