It was a simple gesture. While Rafael Nadal was celebrating his U.S. Open victory, the man he defeated, Novak Djokovic, walked over to Nadal's side of the court to offer his congratulations. The two men warmly embraced, exchanged words and then began walking off the court arm in arm: a poignant show of sportsmanship on the sport's grandest stage.
Minutes earlier, Djokovic had been on the verge of pulling off the greatest victory of his career. When he hit a ball wide on match point, he must have been heartbroken. Had he gone to the net, waited for Nadal to get to him, exchanged a perfunctory handshake and then dashed off the court, nobody would have thought ill of him. It's what most players do. But Djokovic is wired differently than most. He offered sincere congratulations during the most painful moment of his career and that, perhaps, is more commendable than anything he accomplished over the past two weeks in New York.
Contrast Djokovic's actions to Roger Federer's two days before. When Djokovic took a five-set thriller from Federer, he celebrated by looking at his player's box and standing with his arms outstretched near the baseline. Federer couldn't watch, rushing to the side of the court to begin packing away his racquets. When Djokovic finally came in for the handshake, Federer left the bag, gave Novak an abrupt handshake and then left the court as quickly as possible.
It wasn't poor sportsmanship by Federer, but it wasn't good sportsmanship either. He was understandably gutted. Many athletes are after losses. Peyton Manning didn't even give a handshake after losing this year's Super Bowl. LeBron James did the same in the NBA playoffs a few years ago. When you're unaccustomed to losing, it's sometimes hard to do so with graciousness.
There's always a delicate balance to how much one should celebrate after a tennis match. The victor needs to revel in their accomplishment and release the pent-up emotions from the match. (Hence the tendency to fall to the ground. It's cathartic.) But there's also the loser to think about. While the winner is basking in the glow of a big win, the player they defeated is waiting at net to give the handshake they've dreaded giving and are usually trying to leave the court as fast as possible so they can go in the locker room and have a cathartic emotion-release of their own. At some point the winner needs to think of the loser during the celebration. Approach the net too quickly, and you've deprived yourself of the greatest moment in your tennis career. Go too slowly and too joyfully and you're rubbing salt in the wound of a person who just experienced the most disappointing moment of theirs.
Nadal and Djokovic did the dance perfectly. Rafa fell to the ground, having accomplished one of the greatest achievements in the sport. When he got up, his face was stoic. He knew Djokovic's pain -- he's been there before. Their embrace was genuine. It was sportsmanship at its finest. For as good a loser as Djokovic was, Nadal was just as good of a winner.
If you're a young athlete in any sport, take a page from Rafa and Nole. Win with grace and lose with dignity. Watch Djokovic when he shakes the hand of the chair umpire. His head is held high. It should be. In losing the U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic showed that you don't have to be the guy holding the trophy in order to be a champion.