Champs or Chumps?

Friday, August 15, 2008 /by

Phpoghotjpm

Okay, I'm back. Our vacation was terrific, but this isn't really the time and place to talk about that. Instead, let's talk Olympics. I just filed a post for ESPN taking a look at the men's final. I'm not giving away the store when I say that Fernando Gonzalez is as tough a gold-medal opponent as Rafael Nadal could have drawn.

Say what you will about Nadal, the bottom line on his young career is that he's had to work extraordinarily hard for everything he's earned - both in the literal as well a metaphorical sense. Work to win all those grueling clay-court matches, work to catch the man who's on the short-list for Greatest of All-Time, work in clutch moments at key tournaments against first-class opponents.

Nadal had to beat Federer in all five of the Grand Slam events he's won. Need anything more be said? And now he has Gonzo for the gold. When Gonzo is playing well, nothing he accomplishes is surprising. The trouble is you can't ever predict when he'll play well until he's in a semi, or final, so you can't ever pick him as a favorite - or, if you're a player, see him coming at you, both guns blazing. He's probably the most dangerous player not consistently seeded in the Top 8.

Nadal has an additional burden at these Olympic Games, that of representing Spain, a nation that has torpedoed its chances of getting the next Olympic Games (for Madrid) about as thoroughly as John Edwards has destroyed his political ambitions. First, one of their female cyclists gets sent home in ignominy, for doping. In of itself, that wasn't such a big deal.

But then the Spanish basketball team gets busted for a frat-house-grade photo prank that was offensive to politically correct folks and simply sophomoric to more tolerant folks. Then a similar picture of the Spanish Fed Cup team appeared, immediately destroying one of the more acceptable examples of spin the Spanish tried to put on that episode -  We were just doing it as a hands-across-the-water gesture to the Chinese, saying we can’t wait to get to Beijing! Apparently, the Spanish celebrate every win over China, in anything, by pulling back the skin at their temples to slant their eyes. Ha, ha, ha, ha!

If you're driven to find a silver lining in all this, it may be that if an American, Russian, or German team had done such things, they would have been accused of intolerable arrogance and crude athletic imperialism. The Spanish have not been so accused. Some people think they're getting a free pass, for being such sophisticated, forward-thinking Europeans, but  you'll get a better explanation if you look at the medal standings. The Spanish are doing woefully in these Games. Even if you already count Nadal's guaranteed silver medal, Kazakhstan has nearly twice as many medals as Spain, and so does Armenia.

As I write this, Spain is in a dead heat with Poland, Algeria and Kyrgyzstan in the medal race. And the last time I looked, the host nation, China, has 41 (that's no typo) medals. This suggests that the Spanish athletes' "slant-eyes" gesture might have been less mockery than wishful thinking. If a nation can make an ass of itself, Spain is doing a pretty good job of it. And lest any of you think that my vacation has wrought some kind of marvelous transformation in my character, I'll add that my attitude is driven less by politically-correct notions of humor than my absolute contempt for talking the talk without walking the walk.

All of this makes me feel for Nadal, who, based solely on his appearance, could be just as easily be taken for Chinese - or Asian, at any rate - as Spanish. Has anybody else noticed that he might have  been separated at birth from short-track ice-skating marvel Apolo Anton Ono?  Granted, a silver medal for Spain might be good reason to call for a national holiday, but we all know that while silver would be just that much more icing on Nadal's 2008 cake, failing to take the gold - after beating Novak Djokovic and seeing Federer meekly fall out, early - will have an ever so slightly bittersweet flavor.

Then we had that controversy in the extremely tense semifinal that Gonzalez won from James Blake (11-9 in the third, after Blake had three match points with Gonzalez serving at 5-6). Personally, I couldn't tell from the television replays if the ball hit Gonzalez's racket or not, but that point has now entered the Controversy Hall of Fame (curator: Ken Flach). And most people seem to think that ball did indeed glance of the shaft of Gonzo's racket. Blake, who's a good sport and in the second best position to see and more or less "feel" what happened (Gonzo having  been in the best position), clearly felt his ball was going to land in - until it was presumably knocked off its trajectory by Gonzo.

The one thing we know about Gonzalez is that he's not a professional liar; a real pro would know enough to simply deny that it hit the racket: What racket? I saw the ball sailing past and thought, 'Great, it's going out! It was the hemming and hawing that crept into his presser - he even went for the absurd Flach defense, which is that it's ultimately the umpire's call - that was troublesome, and suggested that he wanted to win the match badly enough to ignore the customary dictates of conscience.

I'm not going to make excuses for Gonzalez, but in the context of a critically important match, the lapse - if indeed that's what it was -  was understandable if not excusable. Maybe it's no coincidence that we just don't see these controversies boil up during second-round matches in Indianapolis. Put yourself in Gonzo's shoes: in the heat of combat, his sense of sportsmanship is short-circuited for a split-second by his desire to win. He's not trying to pull a fast one, but he immediately goes into denial when the circuits blink back to life. Cheat? Me? No way, I'm one of the good guys therefore I couldn't have cheated!

The moment to be a good sport has passed; now Blake is calling out Gonzo (in essence, already questioning his integrity) by turning to the chair umpire. Denial must be Gonzo's natural reaction, as is an innate understanding that feeling guilt, or even humiliated, is not an option under the circumstances. You just naturally want to believe that you aren't sure; that you were "really tired", that it's the umpire's call. All the mechanisms of rationalization kick in and the worst thing is that you just can't back out; psychically, there's just too much at stake in a game as mentally intense as tennis.

I don't know of Gonzalez will have a sleepless night because of the controversy. I tend to doubt it, because top tennis players are a strong-minded lot (although it seems somewhat ironic to characterize the startlingly inconsistent Gonzalez that way), for whom moving on is a way of life. Still, if Gonzo was less than fully truthful - and I'm sure that he knows whether he touched the ball  or not a player always knows that - a splinter of something must be lodged in his heart.

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