Ask Andy Murray and Roger Federer: In tennis, the pain of defeat outweighs the thrill of victory.
Sports can seem like a cruel joke perpetrated on the athletes that entertain us week after week. This is because no athlete can escape the paradox at the heart of sports, which is that the agony of defeat always outweighs the thrill of victory. Listen to a great athlete articulate why he or she sacrifices so much and works so hard to compete at a high level, and more often you'll hear them say that a fear of losing is the chief source of motivation. Rarely if ever will an athlete say that a joy of winning is what keeps them going, and this careful choice of words is critical to understanding the psychology of sports. Winning may bring a certain level of satisfaction, but losing inspires a visceral feeling of pain, like a sharp punch to the gut, that can stay with someone long after competition is complete. And this means that even if an athlete wins half of the time over the course of a career, he or she will end up experiencing more painful emotions than joyful ones.
Tennis, more than any other professional sport, seems to amplify the pain of losing. When a tennis player loses a match, he or she must face the pain all alone. There are no teammates to turn to, no caddy to give an enthusiastic pat on the back as the match slips from one's grasp. A losing tennis player must shake hands, wave to the crowd and sit there alone, contemplating what could have been. There's no easy way to lose a tennis match, especially when the match is the final of a grand slam and the pressures and expectations of the moment raise the stakes even higher.
Roger Federer, who is at the stage in his career where every new accolade bolsters the argument that he is the greatest player to ever pick up a racket, has endured his share of painful losses. We've seen him weep uncontrollably after losing to his greatest rival and walk off the court glumly after getting upset by younger upstarts. But for all the bad losses Federer has endured, there has arguably never been a tennis player who has dished out more heartbreak to his opponents. His record 17 major titles have come at the expense of some very fine players, who were all looking to carve their own little niches in tennis history, and it's hard not to feel a pang of remorse for some of these deserving runners-up.
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The latest player to fall victim to the Swiss maestro is Andy Murray, who failed to capitalize on an early one-set lead in Sunday's Wimbledon final and once again ended up serving as a bridesmaid on one of his sport's biggest stages. Federer won 4-6,7-5,6-3,6-4 in a tense match that lasted three hours and 24 minutes and was closer than the final score indicates. As others have already pointed out, Murray is a phenomenal athlete who would already have several major titles to his name had he been a pro in any previous era of professional tennis. Murray has the bad luck of having to compete against Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, three all-time great players with 33 major titles between them. Combine the top-notch competition he has to face at every tournament with the weight of the expectations placed upon him by the scores of British tennis fans who desperately want him to become the first British man to win a grand slam event since Fred Perry, and you can understand why he often looks like he's carrying a load of bricks on his shoulders.
Sunday's loss was not the first time Murray experienced heartbreak at the hands of Federer. He lost to Federer in the finals of the 2008 U.S. Open and the 2010 Australian Open. Federer is now tormenting Murray the same way he tormented Andy Roddick throughout the latter half of the 2000s. After Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003, it looked as though he was primed to win multiple major championships. But over the course of the next six years, he lost to Federer in three grand slam finals. Every time Roddick seemed poised to win a second major championship and prove to his detractors that he wasn't sport's version of a one-hit wonder, Federer denied him the opportunity. Roddick now carries the unenviable burden of being labeled as a player who never quite lived up to the expectations his talent created.
Like Roddick, Murray has lost to Federer in three grand slam finals, playing the role of sympathetic loser at Federer's last two grand slam championships. When asked during a post-match interview with Tom Rinaldi what he felt for Murray, Federer went out of his way to mention Roddick, saying he felt bad for both players and knows how it feels to lose a grand slam final. This is a sense of pain that only the athletes who have struggled up the mountain but failed to reach the summit can understand. The rest of us can only speculate as to what it must be like to stumble when the finish line is in plain sight.
There's no way to sugar-coat Murray's loss. When play resumed after rain delayed the third set and prompted tournament officials to close the roof over centre court, his demeanor and body language began to communicate frustration. He seemed to sense that the indoor conditions favored his opponent and that the match was slipping out of his control. Once he lost it was only a matter of time before emotions overwhelmed him. He fought back tears in an excruciating post-match interview while graciously conceding that on this day his best just wasn't good enough.
Murray played superlative tennis throughout the tournament and came into Sunday with a real chance to make this Wimbledon the one where he finally won it all. He came up a few crucial games short once again and now has to go back the drawing board. Considering that Federer is experiencing a career revival under Coach Paul Annacone and will continue to be a contender at major tournaments, there's a good chance Murray and Federer will meet in another grand slam in the near future. If Murray wants to win that elusive title, he will have to find a way to beat his nemesis.
In his book Strokes of Genius, an account of the epic 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal, author Jon Wertheim quotes Toni Nadal, Rafa's uncle and coach, saying "Victory does not feel so good as losing feels bad. When you have a son, you are happy. But it's no comparison to the sadness you feel losing a son." While his metaphor may be a bit strong--losing a sporting event and losing a child are not commensurate in terms of grief--that quote underscores the truth about winning and losing in sports. The next time Andy Murray reaches a grand slam final, I'll be rooting for him not because I want him to feel the joy of victory, but because I don't want to watch him go through the agony of losing again.