Winners get their due. But losers are wonderfully human.
By Kurt Streeter
She couldn’t win a single game.
In the third round of the French Open on Saturday, Wang Xinyu of China had to believe there was at least a chance she could defeat Iga Swiatek, the event’s reigning women’s singles champion and top seed. Wang is no slouch, after all. She is a hard-hitting 21-year-old who in April hit a career-high ranking of 59th in the world, and she can put up a viable fight against the very best.
But she lost, and it was as ugly as can be: 6-0, 6-0 — in tennis parlance, a dreaded double bagel. The match didn’t last much longer than the warmup.
I say there’s glory in that kind of imperfection.
Long live the frail. The weary and worn, the strugglers and the stragglers. The athletes who woefully suffer losses in public.
Long live the defeated in sports.
We’ve seen many of them over the past week or so, and we’ll soon be seeing more.
Of course, this won’t happen only on the slippery clay at the French Open.
The NBA and NHL playoffs have finally reached their finals. College softball, growing fast in popularity, is in the mix with the NCAA Division I championships. The Oklahoma Sooners are aiming for a third straight title — and to add to their Division I record of 51 consecutive victories — after beating Stanford on Monday in a semifinal in extra innings. Let’s have some sympathy for the Sooners’ cavalcade of victims.
Most of the narrative will focus on the winners of these championships. That’s only natural. The world’s greatest athletes stretch and bend the limits of human potential. The best of the best even seem capable of controlling time. No wonder we watch them perform with awe that feels existential. They have become godlike in our world.
That’s fine and understandable, but give me the tennis player who struggles with all her might to win a single game in a Grand Slam match. Give me the basketball star who shanks crucial free throws and the goaltender in hockey who slips and lets the winning slap shot whir by.
Give me nerves that wilt when the pressure comes. I’m here for reflexes that aren’t what they used to be.
Why? Well, the victors are always going to get their due. But to err, as we all know, is human — entirely and beautifully so. And those who lose in so many different ways occupy the more relatable corner of big-time sports.
There’s comfort in knowing that highly conditioned, supremely coordinated, deeply battle-tested athletes can tire, cramp, succumb to pressure, struggle to get enough air and suffer stinging defeat. In the act of failing, they become, even if only briefly, more like the rest of us schmoes.
So we can take solace in the Boston Bruins, who posted a record 65 wins in the regular season, promptly losing in the first round of the NHL playoffs to the Florida Panthers. High expectations for the Stanley Cup became dead weight. Who can relate? I know I can.
Speaking of Boston, in the NBA playoffs, the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum battled back from a 3-0 hole to tie the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Then, in Game 7, with a history-making comeback in play, they collectively laid a stink bomb, putting in performances that stand among the worst and weakest of their careers.
Ever been on the precipice of something great, only to fail — and fail hard, in public? Yeah, me too, going back to the fifth grade play in which I forgot my lines, tripped onstage and nearly broke my nose. It wasn’t hard to sympathize with Brown and Tatum as they clunked shot after shot, and Miami won by 19 points, with all those millions tuning in.
The red clay at Roland Garros — where no step is sure, no bounce can be counted on, and each match can turn into a grueling marathon — offers as clear a window as any into the crushing truth of sports.
Players walk onto the courts looking like Parisian runway models, their skin bronzed, their crisp outfits pressed. Then, once the matches get moving, reality sets in.
At the other Grand Slam tennis tournaments, the points often finish rapid-fire. On the Roland Garros clay, the points can extend like a John Coltrane solo. They can go on and on, pressure mounting, tempo building in a crescendo.
In the most prolonged and competitive matches, you can often see agony — mental as much as physical — descend upon the players. Uncertainty creeps in, and with it gauntness. Muscles weaken and tremble. The crisp outfits — shoes, socks, shirts, wristbands, headbands, hats — cake with sweat and clumps of clay.
Wang was not on court long enough to suffer like this against Swiatek. But Gaël Monfils of France was. Monfils, a weathered, 36-year-old veteran playing in perhaps his final Grand Slam in front of his home crowd, won his first-round match despite facing a 4-0 fifth-set deficit. Along the way, he struggled past aching lungs and a storm of leg cramps. He eked out the match, but was so tired and sore that he couldn’t make it to the court for his second-round match two days later.
The march of time waits on no one.
A few days later, a much younger player, Jannik Sinner of Italy — 21, seeded No. 8 and rising fast — took to Suzanne Lenglen Court against Daniel Altmaier, a journeyman ranked No. 79.
Sinner should have won without much trouble.
He nosed ahead early, but struggled. An hour passed. Altmaier caught up. Another hour went by. The match became a stalemate. Three hours turned to four. Sinner held two match points — and coughed up both. They headed into a fifth set. Sinner fell behind and came back: He faced four match points, but won them all.
And then … and then, after 5 hours, 26 minutes, Sinner watched a screaming serve fly past his outstretched racket for an ace. Game. Set. Match. Final score: 6-7 (0), 7-6 (7), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5. The upset was the fifth-longest match in French Open history.
Sinner walked off the court messy and tousled, his face betraying the self-doubt common to losers. In other words, he was beautifully human.