In win-obsessed world, Nadal offered education in defeat

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Spain's Rafael Nadal looks on after defeat in his mens singles final match against Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open.

Joan Solsona is painting a competitive picture. Rafael Nadal, he beckons me to imagine, is skipping stones across the water. A friend is winning this idle competition, so Nadal cannot stop. His compulsion is to be the better man.

"He has to be a winner," says Solsona, "otherwise it's like he cannot sleep. If he doesn't win, everyone must keep playing. In golf, it is the same. These are his hobbies, imagine what he is like in tennis, his professional life."

My conversation with Solsona - a Spanish journalist who has known Nadal since he was 12 - occurs an hour before the Australian Open final last Sunday as I try to comprehend Nadal's urge to win. If his appetite for victory suggests a primitive stone-age man with a club, it also makes him a more evolved competitor than his peers. Yet this idea is transplanted after the final by a even more baffling consideration. If winning is so essential to his being, how does he lose so well?

That Nadal fought on against Stanislas Wawrinka was an answering to the coding of his DNA. Expected you might think, yet fellow athletes, who understand effort better than us, swooned. Joel Selwood, an Australian Rules football captain, from a physically brutal sport, tweeted: "Would love #Nadal as a team-mate!" But if Nadal had quit, this might have been understandable. Accosted again by injury he was agonised by it, but never let it win. This victory he didn't allow.

He played on for he answered another code, a worthy, unwritten one, that demands you complete a match. To finish is to not hand the other man an amputated victory and in effect you are honouring the man who is destroying you. But if Nadal said he did this for Wawrinka, and the fans, he also did it "for me". To finish is to practise not giving up, it is to give yourself a chance - Wawrinka might have collapsed - and it is later a reflection of who he is: the man who gave everything. Or else is nothing.

Sainthood is not on offer in athletic arenas for to expect it is to strip sport of its different complexions and to misunderstand its madness. If we are hostile in the stands, imagine the middle. Imagine the fury, the exhaustion, the want. The athlete is immersed, even lost, often deaf, in this reactive, instinctive world of no respite. That he can think clearly is staggering, that he might hurl an unsavoury epithet at himself or a toss a racket is human.

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