London's The Sunday Times writer Lynn Barber is most famous for being played by Carey Mulligan in the 2009 movie, "An Education", for which Mulligan received an Oscar nomination, but that's not what got Barber death threats last week. No, Barber's famous tales of sleeping with lots and lots of men didn't raise the world's ire, but her recent interview with Rafael Nadal did. The most controversial item in the interview was Barber's hint that Nadal might be gay, but the main jist of the piece was that Nadal is "over-handled" and is leading a bizarro, strangled life of all work and no play. And by no "play", Barber is talking about a sex life. Barber pondered many times in the article how a young, vital 25 year-old can survive without sex, but of course, Barber is only speculating that Nadal is nookie-free. Nadal supposedly has a girlfriend, but no one outside of his very tight inner-circle knows the truth. Anyway, the world-wide fans of Nadal, who just won his sixth French Open title, went beserk, threatening Barber's life and coming to a quick and spirited defense of their idol.
It's funny that Barber's article was published when it was, because after watching Nadal's French Open win last week, we caught ourselves thinking, "Why can't we get more excited about this guy?". We're certainly not about to go down the ill-advised path that Sports Illustrated Magazine trod back in the 1980's with its famous piece on Ivan Lendl, (click here), but we can't help but see the similarities between Nadal and Lendl. Back in the 1980's, the Connors/McEnroe tennis era, which electrified American sports fans and helped to make tennis incredibly popular in the U.S., was coming to an end, and in its place came a new champion, Czechoslovakian Ivan Lendl. Lendl was a great champion, but to say that he played with no emotion and no fireworks is an understatement. He was the embodiment of the stereotype of the robotic Soviet-bloc athlete who wins his games, but in the process wins no fans. To Americans, who like their sports heroes to wear their hearts on their sleeves, Lendl was the anti-Christ.
And now comes Nadal, who plays with a similar machine-like attitude with little emotion. Yes, he jumps in the air and pumps his fists, but other than that, he has absolutely no personality. Unlike other sports stars like Roger Federer and Tiger Woods, Nadal appears in no American t.v. commercials, and he barely speaks to the press. Part of the reason for Nadal's silence is the fact that he struggles to speak English, but even when he does, he has very little of interest to say. Now we're not about to say that only bright, shiny objects catch our attention; we don't need our sports stars to rant and rave, ala John McEnroe, for us to love them. We were big fans of Ivan Lendl back in the day, and he barely even smiled. But an athlete has to do something to endear himself to us, and so we're sorry to say this, but for all of Nadal's success, he just bores us. In fact, there are times when we don't even like him.
Maybe Nadal's lack of popularity in America has something to do with the era in which he's playing. When Lendl played, he proved to be the perfect antithesis for the much fierier McEnroe; in other words, for all those people who wanted to see the spoiled-brat McEnroe get his come-uppance, Lendl was our savior. But when Nadal wins, he more often than not ruins the storyline that most people want to see. Among the top four men in tennis, everyone wants to see Federer win to see how many more Grand Slams he can win; they want to see Andy Murray win to become Great Britain's first tennis champion in eighty years, and they want to see Novak Djokovic win because he's just so darn funny and likable. So when Nadal defeats these guys, instead of receiving the love, he instead earns scorn for ruining the storybook ending we would rather have seen.
It's a shame, because Nadal himself is very likable. He might be a little OCD, and the butt-picking is more than we can take, but the way that he shows concern for his opponents right after he crushes their dreams is genuinely touching. And the fact that he modestly refuses to believe that he is better than Roger Federer, even though he routinely beats him, is a sign of inspiring maturity. But for some reason, it just doesn't work. We just can't work ourselves up to love Nadal, or to cheer for him to win. Maybe one day it will all change; maybe the storyline will shift, and Nadal will become the underdog for whom we'll cheer. But it's going to take a lot for that to happen, and at this point, we wouldn't count on it.