The Biggest Loser

From my column on AOL Fanhouse

We love winners. They are perfect. They are heroic. They are beautiful. They are special. By now, a couple of days have passed since Rafael Nadal, winner, crushed his first-round opponent at the Australian Open, whoever that was.
The other guy, the loser, didn’t win one game, but that doesn’t explain how bad it was. He couldn’t even keep the ball in play for more than two shots, and the analysts on ESPN2 were openly questioning his motives.

So this is in defense of the biggest loser of the tournament, Marcos Daniel of Brazil, the only guy who couldn’t manage to win even one game. No, that’s wrong. It’s not just in his defense. It’s a tribute to Daniel.

He served as the prime example of what tennis is all about, just as much as Nadal did.

It’s not in our culture to find a blowout loss to be heroic, but that’s what I saw.

“Marcos Daniel of Brazil … being treated by the trainer,” said Chris Fowler, ESPN analyst, after Nadal won the first set, 6-0, in 19 minutes. “They’re wrapping tape around his knee, but he may just be biding time or making an excuse.”

A few minutes later, Patrick McEnroe, in the booth with Fowler, said this: “If this guy was injured coming in, then he’s obviously just out there to get a paycheck, which is not what you like to see.”

Obviously?

“There’s some thought,” Fowler said, “that maybe if you show up and lose in the first round in this manner, and bring an injury in, you shouldn’t get your full $20,000, in this case, for losing in the first round.”

These guys missed the spirit of tennis being played out right in front of them. Fowler and McEnroe are excellent analysts, but this time they missed the point.

“All my life, I fight hard when happens this kind of problem (a knee injury),” Daniel said afterward. “But with this problem, it’s a little bit difficult.”

Question Daniel’s motivation? He is a 32-year-old journeyman who has won a total of one match on hard courts at the tour level in his career. That’s what Fowler said. And here he was with a chance at Rod Laver Arena, one of the world’s most important tennis stadiums, facing Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest players of all time.

When is he going to get another chance like this?

You can question whether it was about the money, as it is for so many athletes today. This is Daniel’s job after all. But that seems so backward, to take a guy who is killing himself out there and talk about money.

But don’t question his injury. You could see from the beginning that he couldn’t move, that he couldn’t even fully straighten his leg.

If Daniel were there only for the money, then he could have left after the first set, when he had a trainer come out and wrap him up. No one would have questioned him, and he could have collected his paycheck.

Instead, Daniel went back out. He kept going back out to fight Nadal, despite knowing he had no chance to win.

That is the best of spirit. In tennis, you stand out there by yourself, without help, testing your body, your mind, your soul. Daniel’s body was shot, but his mind and soul overruled.

Early in the second set, Brad Gilbert, another ESPN guy, said that Daniel and Nadal had just played their first point with a rally longer than three shots. This was a disaster, but Daniel kept fighting.

How many times have we watched athletes quit over piddling little injuries? Our back hurts, and we still go to work. Sprain a knee, go to work. And then a rich NBAplayer cracks a fingernail and takes a seat on the end of the bench in an expensive suit.

A few years ago, I was writing about the Chicago Bulls, who outwardly wondered if their forward, Luol Deng, was really too hurt to play. He said he didn’t see the point in going if he wasn’t 100 percent.

Daniel had no chance to win, was nowhere near 100 percent. My mailbox could have beaten him in a foot race.

So what was the point? To be there. To do that. To be in the moment. To fight with everything you have. I know this isn’t tennis’ reputation, but this is a warrior’s game.

What’s the point of fighting the fight? I cannot believe that came from McEnroe, who heads the USTA’s junior development program.

“I grew up with him,” said a pro I know from Brazil. “He is a fighter. Ten thousand dollars won’t make a difference for him.”

In the first game of the second set, Daniel finally got a rally going, and tried to come into the net. Nadal hit a half-paced, looping shot. Daniel could not move his feet, and the ball hit him in the thigh.

Throughout the match, Daniel couldn’t get his feet in position to hit the ball right, couldn’t push off to run down a forehand and certainly couldn’t get his legs into his serve.

There are codes to follow in tennis, and while Nadal respected Daniel’s fight, too, he respected it by crushing him.

“For sure I am a professional and I try my best every point,” Nadal said. “That’s the best thing for respect the opponent in that situation. So sometimes, if you do something and you let him win a game, is worse, no?”

Yes. Daniel had hurt the knee before the tournament, and then re-injured it during pre-match warmups. It got worse and worse throughout the match until he couldn’t finish that second set. He finally shook Nadal’s hand at 6-0, 5-0.

The winner moved on. The loser gave everything he had.

Please read my new tennis blog at gregcouch.com. Email me at gregcouch09@aol.com. Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

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