Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Soapbox: Angry GOAT

A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise person holds it in check.—Proverbs 29:11

The world recently watched as Novak Djokovic was reduced to tears after he lost Wimbledon on Centre Court to fan favorite Carlos Alcaraz, a Spaniard. For die-hard Rafa Nadal fans around the world, this was poetic justice in action. Nadal, a fellow Spaniard, who is out recovering from surgery, sent a post-match tweet to Alcaraz expressing immense joy. He closed with one simple charge for the 20 year old: Enjoy the moment, Champion!!!

The word champion is readily tossed around at will in today’s television age of sports. We discover that it can be used as either a noun or a verb. One can be a champion after years of hard work or one can champion for something or someone they want to see succeed.

The overarching theme of athletes who are named champions is that they are not only the declared winners, but they also exhibit character traits of perseverance, strength, discipline, fortitude, sportsmanship, and the ability to overcome obstacles. When considering men’s tennis, all of The Big Four (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray) have found ways to win slams after obstacles like being two sets down. Perhaps, the most iconic comeback of all in recent history is Nadal’s 5th set victory over Daniil Medvedev in the 2022 Australian Open. Nadal, who has been plagued with more mechanical injuries than the others of The Big Four, is known to be the greater overcomer of them all.

To be a champion, c’est incroyable! To be a Wimbledon champion, c’est vraiment incroyable! It is really incredible! But why? Why is a Wimbledon champion held in such high regard?

Perhaps to examine this, we turn to the awe of the tournament itself and the historical grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. The tournament has now been played on the original grass surface for the last 101 years. But before that, the tournament had nearly another 50 years in existence and still touts the second from original trophy (1887). There are other long-standing sporting events in the world that currently continue to make history like this, but few that rival the strong traditions of Wimbledon other than the Kentucky Derby which was founded only two years prior in 1875. The Stanley Cup (hockey) and The Claret Jug (golf) deserve a mention here as well, but something about paying an $8,000 ticket and sitting around a 100-year-old grass court in close quarters with the Princess of Wales has set Wimbledon apart through the years.

So this year, in the presence of two future Kings of England, Novak Djokovic was dismantled by the young Spaniard. With 44 consecutive undefeated matches in his previous Wimbledon appearances, everyone had The Djoker picked as the favorite, even himself. “I don’t want to be arrogant,” stated Djokovic in a post-match press conference days before meeting Alcaraz, but when the Spaniard took a 2-1 lead in the 5th set in the presence of his own King Felipe, Djokovic slammed his racquet into the net post with his young son and Prince George looking on.

Djokovic has already beaten history by surpassing Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal in the amount of Grand Slam trophies he has taken home. Had he won Wimbledon, he would have been only the second player in tennis history to hold 24 slams, tying a woman, Margaret Court. Notably, Serena Williams, like Djokovic, also banked 23 slams before retiring.

With all of this history at stake, Djokovic fans and FEDAL (Federer/Nadal camp) might as well be red and blue states with the polarizing venom of who will go down as the actual GOAT. This brings us to the question of the differences that set apart a champion from a GOAT. A GOAT may have all the trophies in the world, but may not possess the heart of a champion. Being a GOAT is based upon statistics. Being a champion is more of a rarity, like being a higher quality diamond than the others. In comparison of two stones, both are diamonds, but one is more refined than the other.

Can a GOAT give full display to anger and still remain as a champion in the hearts of the people? Initially, one would think no way. But then we must consider the original Bad Boy of Tennis John McEnroe a former GREAT and three time Wimbledon champion, who has entire YouTube collections based upon his angry moments when he, like Djokovic, taunts the crowd, terrorizes chair umpires, and gets in the face of his opponent in the world’s most polite sport.

Why then do we not give the hall pass to Djokovic’s public venting of anger? Do we accept McEnroe as today’s voice of tennis simply because his outbursts were not as widely known due to lack of coverage then? For it is true that some rabid Djokovic fans love him for making statements about the crowd such as, “When they chant Roger, I hear Novak.”

Why does the sports loving public applaud Coach Kim Mulkey for drawing a technical foul by throwing off her designer jacket and shouting a few choice words just so she can change the momentum of the game; yet, we hold Novak hostage to his pummeling a line judge in the throat with an angry out-of-play ball? Because of it, he did not get a hall pass for the 2020 U.S. Open, nor did he get a hall pass in subsequent years for vaccination status when he was banned from six tournaments.

In spite of a fickle public, the angry GOAT trend is not a good one. Frances Tiafoe had the tennis world eating from the palm of his hand in the 2022 U.S. Open after he downed Nadal, but by the time he exited the Wimbledon courts of 2023, the commentator said, “He is a very angry man.” If tennis had a Miranda Lambert, Tiafoe is it. Like Djokovic, his public venting of inner anger is souring the fan base.

So why do we give the hall pass to some and not to others? Perhaps, the McEnroes and Mulkeys come along when the respective sport needed an antagonist. Perhaps this is why at least half of the tennis world has become the Djokovic faithful and why Medvedev can be devilish and it’s okay. We salivate at the thought of the future marketing endorsements of a guy by the first name of Jannik but the delicious last name of Sinner. Perhaps we need that big catfish in a small pond to keep us, the lazy cod, feeling alive as mere spectators of greatness. Only time will separate the true champions from the angry GOATs, picking and choosing who gets our hall pass of approval even where evil villains are concerned. Perhaps, the answer is something we already know, but we just don’t want to say out loud….we championed for them because we just loved them more.

Brandi Chambless
Brandi Chambless
Read Brandi's column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper.

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