Loss is More – Reflections on the not-so-easy-to-handle reality of losing

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Grigor Dimitrov dejected after losing in the Gentlemen's Singles semi-final match against Novak Djokovic. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Allan Agee

The president of our nation has a tendency to label people he doesn’t favor as “losers.” In a way it’s linked to our success-driven culture where “Just Win, Baby” is a kind of mantra and “Winning Ugly” is a celebrated strategy. “Winning isn’t everything,” the late NFL icon Vince Lombardi told us, “It’s the only thing.”

But in tennis, losing is a way of life. Each year at the Australian Open there are 256 singles players. After the first round, there will be 128 losers and eventually, 254 will retreat in defeat. Tennis players are like defensive backs in football who almost instantly have to bounce back, right after they’ve allowed a touchdown pass. You’ve got to get over your setbacks fast.

Once, after Swede Stefan Edberg suffered a bad Wimbledon loss, he sighed, “Oh, well, there’s another tournament next week.” Following her wretched loss in the 2008 Wimbledon final, Serena claimed, “I don’t know who that was – I wasn’t at Wimbledon this year.” After a bad Aussie Open loss, Sloane Stephens said, “If I dwell on this, in the [next] 25 tournaments I’m going to play, I’m probably going to suck, too.”  Writer David Walstein recently reported, “[John] Isner attributed his recent success to a more relaxed approach…and a refusal to fret over the outcome of a match. Whatever happens, happens. And that mindset has led to clarity of thought and better decisions on court.”

In a sport in which even the game’s best player, Mr. Federer, has lost 262 times, “Tomorrow is another day” is a state of mind every player needs to embrace.

Some dismiss losses with adept ease – others less so. After his loss to Alexandr Dolgopolov, Rafa Nadal said, “It was an accident.” In contrast, Madison Keys confided, “Being upset after a loss takes all the fun out of playing. There were times after a loss when I would want to go and sit in a dark room for a day.”

Even champions struggle. Near the end of his career, Sampras said, “When I lose, I’m devastated. It can take me weeks to get over a big loss. I sometimes feel so debilitated I can hardly get up in the morning. It hurts me more now than it did 10 years ago. That’s a good thing. It tells me I still care.”

Losses can happen in a flash. Pam Shriver said, “The turning point [in her match against Steffi Graf] was when we walked out on the court.” In contrast, it took 11h05m for Nicolas Mahut to lose to John Isner.

While nearly all setbacks in tennis soon vanish like water on sand, Aaron Krickstein’s infamous US Open fail against Jimmy Connors has been replayed about a billion times – or so it seems. Some losses turn out to be coming-of-age markers. Sampras’ 2001 loss to Federer was a loss for the American and the harbinger of a new day. For millions of tennis-playing families around the globe there’s a tectonic shift when a parent is finally defeated by his or her growing child – there’s no turning back.  

Other losses are memorialized for eternity. Documentaries give us every detail of John McEnroe’s Wimbledon shortfall to Bjorn Borg in 1980 and Federer’s classic 2008 loss to Nadal in the Wimbledon dusk.

Players and poets alike offer commentaries on loss. Nothing beats one brash New Yorker’s proclamation. “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row,” said the disco devilish blonde after he finally scored a win over Jimmy Connors. Of course, none other than Rudyard Kipling gave us the mother of all commentaries on loss. Engraved at the entrance of Wimbledon Center Court is Kipling’s kōan: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Two of tennis’ most wrenching losses occurred at Wimbledon. After No. 129 Jelena Dokic beat No. 1 Hingis, Ian Wooldridge claimed, “The sheer enormity, the staggering implausibility…this hard to ignore defeat heaped humiliation on the shame she already felt.” Just weeks earlier, Hingis had imploded in tears against Stephanie Graf in the 1999 French Open final. Even more devastating was Jana Novotná’s infamous collapse against Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final when she wept on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. Simon Barnes suggested that, “Novotná played a game of tennis for everyone who has ever made an absolutely ghastly mistake. Or, to put it another way, for the entire human race.”

The most significant loss in tennis history was Bobby Riggs’ fall to Billie Jean King in 1973. An entire movie – The Battle of the Sexes – gives us all we need to know about the humbling of a roguish hustler – and with that the beginning of the end for ol’ male chauvinism.

No one draws more motivation from on-court or off-court losses than Serena. Her career soared after an NFL linebacker ditched her. Later, after losing early in the 2008 French Open, she won 15 of the next 19 Slams she played. Pam Shriver noted, “When she wants revenge, it’s crush city.” The world is waiting to see how she will respond to her US Open meltdown.

Of course, John McEnroe has brilliantly used losing his cool to build his you-can’t-be-serious brand. Tennis once even had a court that was famous for its shocking losses – Wimbledon’s Court 2, aka “the Upset Court.” Tennis has endured lost years. Pros like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall were banned until 1968. Tracy Austin lost much of her career because of a car accident. The promising rivalries of both McEnroe vs. Borg and Graf vs. Seles were cut short or diminished when Borg suddenly retired at age 26 and Monica Seles was tragically stabbed. With the shortfalls of Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov and others, fans sense that theirs is a lost generation.

There have been lost tennis empires. The long-ago periods of dominance by Australian, American and Swedish men are now but a memory.

In a fiercely individual sport there have been devastating team losses. Croatia beat the 2nd seeded US in the 2005 Davis Cup first round that featured Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and the Bryan brothers. After America’s Davis Cup team was shocked by Argentina in 1983 their team captain was so elated that he tried to leap the net – but he lost his balance and broke his leg.

Sometimes losses morph into victory. After she lost to Tracy Austin at the US Open, Martina Navratilova was greeted with a wave of sympathy. Andy Roddick’s 2009 Wimbledon loss to Federer and Andy Murray’s weepy 2012 Wimbledon speech had a similar effect.

Observers often provide humorous twists to setbacks. While musing on the loss of Navratilova’s dog, columnist Scott Ostler wrote, “Martina was beside herself, which, come to think of it, would make a hell of a doubles team.”

We’re constantly dealing with loss. Someday, tennis will lose Serena and Federer as active players. The way-too-early passing of America’s great bon vivant Vitas Gerulaitis and the conscience of tennis, Arthur Ashe, remain inexplicable losses. But one thing tennis will never lose is the constancy of loss and the perplexing challenge of how to cope with, and learn, from its pain.

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