09/20/2011 12:39 EDT | Updated 11/20/2011 05:12 EST

Rafael Nadal's Platonic Courage

Like an ocean tide, the court lifted Nadal higher toward who knows where. His defeat took on the grandeur of a victory that outstripped the baser limitation of our terminal obsession with "winning."


Notwithstanding the sight of millionaire tennis players dancing like monkeys in a corporate circus, last week's U.S. Open men's final offered a rare glimpse into the fact that victory and defeat as separate entities is little more than a persuasive fiction. Life and death don't oppose one another, but weave the warp and woof of a single fabric flowing we don't know where. Not a fan of Rafael Nadal, nonetheless I've been haunted by his tragic performance in the final set of his loss to Novak Djokovic. He seemed in the space of only a few minutes to become both loser and winner and embody what Plato called "the whole nature of courage."

In his dialogue "Laches," Plato provides a partial definition of courage, a "sort of wisdom" or knowledge of when to fear defeat or hope for victory in war, sport, disease, poverty, politics, even love.

From the mouths of Socrates and his companions, Plato defines a "thoughtful courage" not as hope or fear of past or present actions, but as a principle of "wise endurance" with respect to the future: knowing when you'll lose, staring into that "little death," absorbing the terror of the moment, yet preserving the mental strength to carry on and fight another day. Socrates avers that courage, like the boldness of a boar in battle, doesn't mean standing one's ground beyond the limits of mental and physical capability, risking a humiliation so great that it results in the death of one's competitive acumen, or of one's sanity, or even of life and limb. Instead, courage entails the intelligence and foresight to learn from the mistakes that caused the loss and have the patience to wait for the next chance to seek victory. However, because he acknowledges that his definition doesn't include consideration of past and present factors that may contribute to the prescience in this "wise endurance," Socrates concludes by lamenting that "we are all in the same perplexity."

But that perplexity, briefly, seemed lifted as I watched Nadal accept defeat in the final minutes of his championship match against Djokovic. Nadal had lost the first two sets (2-6, 4-6), then pushed his mind and body to the edge of their endurance to eke out a tie-break win (7-6) in the third. The risk he took didn't pay off. As the fourth set began, while Djokovic himself inched toward bodily collapse, Nadal was exhausted that much more. He lost the first three games and what bursts of energy he could still muster proved insufficient.

This was when he began to display a dignity and strength of character rarely seen in sports or any other arena of human intercourse. The humiliation of having been outplayed for nearly the whole match; the humiliation of having lost to Djokovic during their five previous encounters (all in finals); the humiliation of having been stripped of his number one ranking earlier this year by Djokovic in the Wimbledon final: Nadal bore all these indignities on his thunder-clapped face.

During the final three games, a storm seemed to brew within his psyche, audible on his rumbling brow. There appeared to be moments when he stood ready to punish his body's failure to match the vigour and determination of his mind, as if he were debating whether to burn his body to ash, drive himself to madness and defy the reality that he'd struck a wall he couldn't climb: Djokovic was simply the better player and no amount of bold boar-like rashness would change that fact. Nadal scowled and gnashed his teeth like steel in the furnace of his mouth, yet after some vacillation, as shot after shot blew by him, it looked as if he'd finally grasped that Platonic "wise endurance," the foresight largely unknown to men, women, children and animals, the intelligence to eclipse emotion with reason, allowing his pores to absorb the grief of defeat. Calmness consumed his face, like circles on water which, as they vanish, expand. His eyes grew fuller and assumed a soft lustre. A mysterious shade crept over his face. He seemed to pull himself back from the point of frenzy and evince in his broken form both defeat and victory, death and life.

It was among the richest moments I've experienced in recent memory. The self-possession that took over Nadal, an involuntary exhibition of his deeper self, trumped the victories of Djokovic's near-flawless performance as well as his many achievements over the course of the year, all of which acquired an inferior significance. During the match's final minutes, in my mind's eye, Djokovic vanished, as did the corporate advertisements littering the stadium and the malignant wailings of the illiterate crowd. Like an ocean tide, the court lifted Nadal higher toward who knows where. His defeat took on the grandeur of a victory that outstripped the baser limitation of our terminal obsession with "winning."

At the risk of over-stating my case, Nadal's body and face became the birthmark of a revelation suffused more with darkness than with light. The ancestral glow of all our griefs shone in him down through the ages. He became "the whole nature of courage." Of course, I may have been letting my imagination get the best of me. The impression left as fast as it came, but a trace of that original feeling still lingers.