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The real meaning of rivalry

And how it pushes sports to evolve, by Ed Smith

Ed Smith | February 12th 2015

The Australian Open final, between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, was an ill-tempered match. The handshake at the net afterwards was brisk and cold, which is unusual for a Grand Slam men’s final these days, when the behaviour so often matches the brilliance of the play. The animosity this time, people have assumed, centered on Djokovic’s apparent injury and exhaustion early in the third set. Was he faking it? Murray appeared confused, then distracted, then angry. Djokovic stormed back into the lead and trounced Murray 6-0 in the fourth set to take the title.

Many pundits have argued that Murray was hoodwinked by Djokovic’s gamesmanship, causing Murray to “melt down” and squander the title. I am much less confident that the injury incident altered the result. But I am certain that it changed—and diminished—the event. The coldness and disappointment of each player at the end was partly self-directed. Djokovic knew he could have won better. Murray knew he could have lost better. That’s why, for all its early promise, the match did not have the same uplifting effect as the other epic duels in this exceptional era of men’s tennis. It was not quite a shared victory, as so many finals have been.

The concept of rivalry is often misunderstood. Rivals are simultaneously opponents and accomplices. As Mike Brearley, the former England cricket captain, has pointed out, in sport there is “A unity of shared striving, as well as a duality of opposition.” Indeed, the Latin roots of the words “rival” and “compete” reflect this: rivalis means “sharing the same stream,” competens means “striving together with” and “agreeing together”.

With exceptional rivalries, the players not only push each other to new levels, they also advance the whole sport’s evolutionary progress. This has clearly happened in tennis. That is why Federer was weirdly grateful for the emergence of his nemesis. Nadal cost Federer several grand slams, but also inspired his best tennis. The complete meaning of winning and losing is always more complex than numbers on a score-sheet. Sport at its best rests on openness and playfulness as well as fierce competition. “I have come to play, you have come to play, so let’s play this thing out—and I’ll win.” That is the mutual mindset that often leads to the greatest sporting spectacles.

It cannot be denied, however, that some magnetic rivalries have not been underpinned by mutual respect. The Arsenal-Manchester United duopoly of the late 1990s and early 2000s was frequently petty and sometimes nasty. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier retained a lifelong animosity after their fighting days were over. Ali’s taunting of Frazier approached outright racism. In reply, Frazier privately boasted that his fists hastened Ali’s physical and mental decline in middle age.

In a disrespectful rivalry, there is tragic potential in wish fulfilment: when violent plans turn into reality. This was captured in “The Fight of Their Lives”, the brilliant but unsettling documentary about the boxing match between Gerald McClellan and Nigel Benn in London in 1995. Both fighters revelled in the bad blood before the fight and—even allowing for the violence intrinsic to the sport—it was a brutal encounter played out in a primal atmosphere. By the third round McClellan, dreadfully let down by his negligent and incompetent corner-men, was left blinking heavily and struggling to breathe. Having fallen to one knee in the tenth round, McClellan then collapsed unconscious as Benn celebrated in the ring. Admitted to hospital, McClellan spent 11 days in a coma to remove a blood clot.

With McClellan fighting for his life, Benn was asked how he felt: “I’m sad about it. But, you know, rather him than me.” Of all his mistakes, inside and outside the ring, you wonder whether Benn, now a born-again Christian, regrets that sentence the most. McClellan is still severely brain-damaged, penniless, blind, partly deaf and unable to walk.

The two fighters finally met again at a charity dinner in 2011. Benn repeated his own name, leaning close to his old enemy’s face. McClellan turned to his sister, Lisa: “Does he look sad?” The question applied to everyone. In the aftermath of the Benn-McClellan tragedy, Parliament debated banning boxing. Through a mixture of bad luck, incompetent support staff and dark rivalry, boxing had been laid bare. 

Respect might feel difficult at the time, before and even after battle. But, over the long term, it is a lot easier to live with.

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