Boyfriend Jon puts his hat in the ring for SI's Sportsman of the Year, and he's not exactly going out on a limb by nominating Rafa. I would love love love to be a fly on the wall to hear Jon's impassioned stumping for Rafa at SI's offices as all the sports editors meet to discuss this issue.
For 2008 Sportsman of the Year, I hereby put forth the candidacy of Spanish swashbuckler, Rafael Nadal. First the cold, rational facts: In 2008 Nadal became the first man since Björn Borg to win on both the clay of the French Open and the grass of Wimbledon, an extraordinary feat of versatility. Nadal beat his rival Federer each of the four times they played this year -- including their positively spellbinding Wimbledon final -- wresting away the No. 1 ranking in the process. He won titles on every surface and clinched Spain's spot in this weekend's Davis Cup final by beating Andy Roddick of the defending champion U.S. squad in September. To date he has won 82 matches this year against just 11 defeats, a Federerian winning percentage of .822.
What's that you say? In 2008 a prerequisite for the Sportsman of the Year consideration ought to be an Olympic gold medal? We almost forgot: Nadal won one of those too, taking the men's tennis event in Beijing.
Now the subjective: Nadal, 22, singlehandedly shatters the tired perception of the tennis player as a pampered, elitist pinhead. With a body that belongs in an NFL backfield (if not a UFC Octagon) he is all muscle, both bulk and fast-twitch, and, accordingly, his game is a devastating mix of power and speed. He doesn't stroke the ball so much as he pummels it, unfurling a lefty game that simply has no precedent. Yet his real strength is the mental variety. Nadal is that rare athlete whose game moves in lockstep to the stakes. In the fifth set of that episodic Wimbledon final, as darkness enveloped the court, it was Nadal who hit the biggest shots. ¿Como se dice: refuse to lose?
Just as important, Nadal, drawing on Federer's example, is good people. He competes honestly. He treats his colleagues with respect and humility. His next on-court tantrum will be his first. When he's off the tennis caravan he lives on the island of Mallorca with his folks and tools around in a Kia. In Beijing, while Federer lodged at a luxury hotel, Nadal stayed in the Olympic Village and was spotted lugging his dirty clothes to the laundry facility. "I don't think of myself as any better than anyone else," he said. "Why should I, because I can hit a tennis ball over a net well?"
For all of his populist sensibilities, Nadal, my SOY for 2008, still managed to inhabit rarefied air.
I'll be shocked if SOY doesn't go to Michael Phelps. Part of that is the SI tennis bias. Jon's nominated Fed for the past few years and we've seen how far that got him. But if there was a year where the editors might give Jon the nod, it would be here. Sure, Phelps' performance was ridiculous, but we're talking about a performance over one week. Hell, if that's the metric, I'd give it to Tiger for his superhuman performance at the US Open (seriously, I have never cried watching golf and I cried watching him gut that out).
But in Rafa's case, he not only put together a Federer-like year in terms of his performance, he also ran down and took out his nemesis and ripped from his cold mono hands those two things that meant the most to Fed: Wimbledon and the #1 ranking. Phelps and Woods were front-runners who stood up to the pressure of the moment. While their performances were amazing, they were expected.
Rafa put his head down and doggedly went after the front-runner and succeeded. He did something that really, none of us thought he could do. He's changing the face and perception of tennis and he's doing it with tremendous class and humility. A true sportsman he is.
SI likes to be contrarian in their SOY picks, particularly when it's close. I'm hoping they buck the trend and put tennis on their cover for, SHOCKER, the second time this year. But I doubt it considering that they didn't bother publishing an essay in favor of Phelps' nomination. I guess we'll just have to wait to read that one on December 2nd.