Living in a state of sports grace

Originally Published: June 2, 2009
By Tim Keown | Page 2

"Well, that's the end of the road, and I have to accept it. I need to face the fact I didn't play well this week. It's not a tragedy. I had to lose one day. I have to accept my defeat as I accepted my victories: with calm."
-- Rafael Nadal

"One thing about me you gotta understand, it is hard for me to congratulate somebody after just losing to him. I'm a winner; that's not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you are not going to congratulate them beating you up. That doesn't make sense to me; I'm a competitor and that is what I do. It doesn't make sense to me to go over and shake somebody's hand."
-- LeBron James

Late afternoon. Outside, palm trees sway gently.
A phone rings. RAFAEL NADAL looks at his cell phone and sees a number with area code 330. Confused, he shrugs and answers.

NADAL: Hola.

LEBRON JAMES: Hey, Rafael, King James here. What's up?

NADAL: Uh … hello. Nothing much going on. Just sitting here wishing I was still in Paris is all.

JAMES: I know the feeling. You and me, we got something in common, that's why I'm calling.

NADAL: I am sorry for your loss.

JAMES: It was tough on me, man. You don't understand, man. Real tough. I'm a winner, you know? But I wanted to ask you, what were you doing after your match? I mean, what were you thinking?

NADAL: I don't understand.

JAMES: You know, the handshaking and congratulating? You walked to the net, shook the man's hand and then went to the press conference and were like, all humble and stuff.

NADAL: It wasn't easy, but that's the way I try to do it. You know how it is: Win with grace, lose with grace. Or at least try.

JAMES: No, I don't know how it is. I guess that's one more thing about me you gotta understand. When we lost to Orlando, I was out of there, baby. Right from the court to the locker room. Then I got a cop on each side of me, my headphones in my ears and headed for the bus. Didn't need to talk. Didn't have anything to say, man. Did I tell you I'm a winner?

NADAL: I have won a lot. I don't like to lose. I have won Wimbledon and Australia and Roland Garros, but when I lose it is part of my job to …

JAMES: You know the funny thing? I didn't even have the music on, man. I just made it look like it. Just playin', you know?

NADAL: That is … funny?

JAMES: They thought I couldn't hear 'em. They were all like, "LeBron, can we get a minute?" "LeBron, what do you have to say about the loss?" When I didn't break stride you should have heard them muttering and complaining. Those cops kept on walking, and I kept on walking. Right to the bus. Right off the bus to the plane. Right on home.

NADAL: Sometimes a good walk can help calm a man's …

JAMES: Wait wait wait. That reminds me. You gotta come clean with me on one thing: With calm? What kind of stuff is that? Is that a tennis thing or something? It's like you're talking about calm all the time, man. Calm this and calm that. First off, I'm not accepting anything, and I'm definitely not accepting it with calm. You understand? Calm's messed up.

NADAL: I guess I just have a different way of thinking. I was not happy -- I was very unhappy -- but I realize it is not the end of the world. In the end, I have no one to blame but myself.

JAMES: Well, man -- that's one thing we don't have in common.

(JAMES laughs loudly. In the background there is more laughter. NADAL thinks he hears the sound of hands slapping.)

JAMES: But back to what I'm saying, man. That dude … what was his name?

NADAL: Robin Soderling.

JAMES: Yeah, whatever. He was the 23rd seed?

NADAL: Please do not remind me.

JAMES: Didn't he make fun of you once before, mocking what you do in front of everyone at Wimbledon?

NADAL: Please do not remind me.

JAMES: So this time he beat you up, ran you all over the damned court, and when it was over you congratulated him? You shook the man's hand?

NADAL: As I said, I was taught to be gracious, to be a sportsman. Mr. King, perhaps we do not speak the same language, no?

JAMES: You speak Nike, man; don't tell me you don't. Did you see those commercials? Do you know what I lost by losing? And I didn't get any help, man. Did you see me out there on every possession, taking the ball between the circles and trying to make something happen? It was one on five, man, one … on … five.

(There is a long pause. NADAL remains quiet.)

JAMES: (nearly inaudible) And now, Kobe gets it all to himself. It's all his, man. All … his.

(Phone clicks off.)

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Sound off to Tim here.

Tim Keown | email

ESPN Senior Writer