I watch the Wimbledon awards, and I wonder about the tradition of making the loser participate in the ceremony. The Stanley Cup does have the line where the two teams shake hands, but the hockey players don’t have to talk about it in front of an audience of millions immediately after their loss. Tennis players do, and this must be especially hard in this one-on-one sport with its stark winner/loser dichotomy. I win; you lose. You win; I lose. I won and made you a loser. You won and made me a loser.
I don’t pretend to have been a superlative athlete, but I have played sports throughout my life, and I know that losing in a team game is much different from losing in an individual sport like tennis. I loved making a good play on the baseball field. I had taken a hit from someone else. The hitter was no doubt disappointed, but I never felt as if I had made that person a loser. They had hit the ball well; they had done their job. I was just lucky enough or in the right place to make a good play. And if I was on the losing side at the game’s completion, the personal, solitary feeling of being a loser at the end of a tennis match did not exist. I would recap the team game, sometimes obsessively, and think about the opportunities I had had where if I had done something different, the outcome might have been reversed, but I knew that my teammates who cared about winning or losing were having the same thoughts. I always knew that neither I nor a teammate had lost individually. We lost or won. If we had won, I liked, or hoped, that I had contributed to the win, but I never thought that I had made an individual on the other team a loser. They lost.
Of course, in losing there could be the bad feeling of not performing at a crucial time as I had wished, say, missing a key free throw, but part of me knew that the game was close as the result of many things that I and each of my teammates did that could have been different throughout the game. And, of course, even if I had not played well, I might still be on the winning side because of what my teammates had done. Not true in tennis.
That said, I don’t pretend that I really had the mental makeup of a good athlete. To succeed, athletes have to be able to accept failure. Even the best batter knows he will make out most of the time. A tennis tournament ends up with all but one having lost their last match. To be a good athlete, you have to risk being a public failure. I can still remember playing in a softball tournament during a summer of my college years. It was the last inning; we were down by a run, and I was at bat. I remember my feeling; I did not want to look bad, and I rationalized that even if I hit a home run, the opposing team, in a high-scoring contest, would most likely still get the winning run at the bottom of the inning. I got into the batter’s box not wanting so much to win the game as to avoid embarrassing myself. I hit a long fly ball that was caught with a slight jump at the fence for the final out, and we lost. And I realized that I was relieved simply because I had not struck out or hit a weak popup. I had wanted more not to be a washout than I had played to win, and I realized at that moment I did not truly have a winner’s mentality. In tennis terms, I feared more the embarrassment that would accompany a fluffed overhead than I cared about the step to winning that would accompany putting the ball away. And I walked away with even more respect for the top athletes.