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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Rafael Nadal

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

In this time of global economic meltdown, the whole "embarrassment of riches" concept doesn't get bandied about much. But consider the landscape in men's tennis. For four years fans were treated to the Roger Federer Era, a golden age during which the Swiss ubermensch won a preposterous 11 of the 16 Grand Slam events he entered, all the while discharging his duties with superlative grace and style. Then, the year he finally goes into decline -- if you can even call it that -- he's succeeded by a player who's not just comparably dominating, but comparably easy to like.

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.

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