One of the great intangibles of athletic competition is "hunger" - the sheer will to win. But does hunger really impact sports at the highest level? In a post-game interview after his surprise second-round defeat at Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal would have you believe that it does not. Asked twice, rather awkwardly, if the loss would give him more "energy inside to fight for the gold medal" during the upcoming Olympics, he responded:
"I think the answer is what I said. When you win you have more confidence for the next tournaments. Is not when you lose you have more hunger to win the next. That's not true. When you are winning you feel more confident, you feel, you know, playing better. When you lose, the confidence is less for the next tournaments. That's for everybody. But seriously, doesn't affect my motivation for the next tournament win or lose. That's all."
In other words, confidence matters, hunger does not. Or rather, hunger is a non-factor because the best players are always equally hungry - they want to win every time, so it's more a constant than a narrative. This is consistent with Nadal's even-keeled approach to each and every match and his claim that he's never thinking about a championship, he's only thinking about the next opponent, the next opportunity to tally a win. But it's hard to believe that his motivation never fluctuates. Three men - Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic - have won the last 28 out of 29 grand slam championships. Yet if you look at all ATP tennis results, the same three have been dominant, but less ruthlessly so. If the top 3 win pretty much every major, why don't they win every tournament? While one factor is the difference between playing best-of-three sets versus best-of-five sets (only the majors are best-of-five), another factor must be that the the top players draw on a their greater motivation to win the most important events.
If we grant that "hunger" is not always consistent for different tournaments, one might also wonder if a player's drive to win a particular tournament also changes over time. I don't doubt that Nadal really hated losing to a completely unknown player at Wimbledon. But in the end, maybe it wasn't such a bad thing for him. In his post-game interview he said himself that "The only thing I can do is go back home and rest, I need and deserve it." Apparently that wasn't the only thing he could do, because a few days later he was reportedly in Poland watching his beloved Spanish national football team win the European Championship. Nadal has been a vocal critic of the relentlessness of the tour - the number of matches that must be played and the speed at which one's ranking will fall if tournaments are skipped. Earlier this year he reflected "to finish your career with pain in all parts of your body is not positive" and "I fear that [after retiring] I won't be able to play soccer or ski with my friends." Perhaps there is nothing to stymie motivation like constant travel, matches, obligations, and pain. It must have been great to cheer on his soccer team and feel that hunger vicariously for a change. I was rooting for Nadal, but I'm not sad he lost.
Instead, I'm happy that Andy Murray has maybe his best chance yet to steal a grand slam from the top three. Murray is a player who's hunger is constantly questioned, partly because he seems like such a nice guy, and a guy who is generally content, even happy, with his long-held status as number four in the world. But like his new coach, the former player Ivan Lendl, has said, "If you become great, then you can become happy. If you're happy first, it's much more difficult to be great."
Personally, I decided long ago that it's better to be happy. Most of us come to terms with our mediocrity. But maybe that's why the narrative of "hunger" is so compelling for the common fan. It let's us imagine that there is something beyond freakish natural talent; that any person can one day strive for greatness, and achieve it.