Commentary

Winner's curse

Rafael Nadal's losses to Novak Djokovic have some wondering if he's lost a step

Updated: April 20, 2012, 4:33 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Howard BryantMark Smith for ESPN The MagazineSports leagues have created an exhaustive 12-month season at the expense of perspective, writes Bryant.

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IN 2008, Rafael Nadal won 82 matches and lost 11. From 2009 to 2011, he went 66-14, 71-10 (including three major titles) and 69-15, respectively. On his best surface, clay, he's lost all of five matches and won three French Open titles over the past four years.

Yet many consider Nadal, 25, to be on the downside of his career because he's lost seven straight matches to Novak Djokovic, all in finals, including the 5-hour, 53-minute Australian Open title epic in January that was one of the greatest matches in history. Never mind that in 2011 alone, Nadal appeared in 10 finals and only twice failed to reach the quarterfinals of a tournament. Never mind that he helped Spain win the Davis Cup in December with a thrilling comeback victory over Juan Martin del Potro. His losses to Djokovic have turned him into a legend in decline -- into a story of failure.

He's not the only big-name athlete on the receiving end of this reductive treatment. In the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl, in which the Patriots lost to the Giants, the deconstruction of Tom Brady was ruthless. The quarterback had come up short in his past two Super Bowls, and the ensuing media chatter revolved around his crumbling legacy. By losing, the 34-year-old supposedly wasn't what he used to be, even though all that stood between him and his fourth ring was one Wes Welker drop.

Nadal and Brady perfectly exemplify the perverse and increasingly pervasive orthodoxy that athletes either win or fail -- nothing noble in between. It's a mindset fostered by the rabid fan, media and sports-radio culture; by a pathological need for statistics to explain competition; and by the sports leagues themselves, which have created an exhaustive 12-month season for the purpose of profits and programming for their networks, at the expense of perspective.

Obscured by this "winning is the only thing" mentality are the quirks and nuances of victory, the grueling journey of competition, the respect for an opponent's abilities and the simple reality that success is extremely difficult. At the same time, our blind overemphasis on winning has undermined the fundamental distinction between losing and declining. Nadal has dropped terrific matches to a player who right now happens to be better than everyone, but that doesn't mean he has a competition problem. He has a Djokovic problem. Likewise, Brady has failed in big games, but when you pull the camera back on his career, it's hard to see any signs of decline. He became the Patriots starter in 2001, and minus one year, 2008, which was lost to a knee injury, he's played 10 full seasons. Of those 10, he's been to the Super Bowl five times. Put another way, in the years in which he's ended the season as the starter, he's played in the Super Bowl 50 percent of his career.

To decline, on the other hand, is to lose routinely to lesser players. Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson quit when inferior hitters blasted him off the mound, like when Pete LaCock hit a grand slam off him in 1975. It was his final game in the big leagues; he knew it was time to go. Tiger Woods has declined. He was once the world's greatest golfer and dropped to 23rd last year. He's lost to guys who once blinked when he stared them down; he's missed putts that once defined his invincibility. On March 21, 2011, Andy Roddick was ranked eighth in the world. Ten times over the next year, he failed to pass the third round of a tournament. Roddick stood at No. 29 and was the third-ranked American behind Mardy Fish and John Isner through April 9. That's what a player in decline looks like. That doesn't look like Nadal.

The funny thing is, when Nadal does lose something off his game, there won't be any doubt about it because his style of play and temperament subject him to injury and burnout; no one can play at his zenith level indefinitely. But there will be no shame in his inevitable decline. Even though we've reduced the concept of high-level play into dumb advertising slogans, to the idea that there is no second place, it's important to remember that losing is the far more natural condition in sports.

If sports can't improve the discussion beyond a win-or-go-home mentality, maybe, in the end, it's better to stay home. Or better yet, instead of watching, we should go out, play the games and compete for ourselves. It might serve as the best reminder of why we watch and revive a greater appreciation of just how hard it is to win.

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