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The Invisible Value of Defeat: A Celebration of Humanity in Sport

The Invisible Value of Defeat: A Celebration of Humanity in Sport

He didn't win a single match.

In the third round of the French Open on Saturday, China’s Wang Xinyu faced Iga Swiatek, the reigning women’s singles champion and the top seed. Despite the impressive credentials of Wang, a 21-year-old who reached her peak ranking of No. 59 in April, she suffered a crushing defeat: 6-0, 6-0, a double bagel in tennis terms. The match ended almost as quickly as it began.

Yet there is a certain glory in this kind of imperfection.

Long live the tired, the exhausted, the fighters and the stragglers. The athletes who endure public defeats. Long live the losers in sports.

This past week has seen the participation of many of these athletes, and many more are coming.

This phenomenon is not limited to the clay courts of the French Open.

The NBA and NHL playoffs have reached the finals. College softball, which is rapidly gaining popularity, is competing for NCAA Division I championships. The Oklahoma Sooners are chasing a third straight title, adding to their Division I record of 51 consecutive victories after defeating Stanford in an overtime semifinal. Think about the many opponents the Sooners have defeated.

Most stories will highlight the champions of these events. It’s only natural. The world’s best athletes push the boundaries of human potential, appearing almost otherworldly. We watch in awe as they seem to manipulate time itself. They become godlike figures in our eyes.

Understandably, but my admiration goes to the tennis player who tries hard to win just one Grand Slam match, the basketball star who misses crucial free throws, and the hockey goalie who misses the game-winning shot.

I appreciate nerves that falter under pressure and reflexes that aren't as sharp as they once were.

Why? Because while winners get what they deserve, failure is a deeply human experience. Those who lose in various ways occupy a recognizable space in the world of elite sports.

There is comfort in knowing that even the most rigorously trained and highly skilled athletes can succumb to fatigue, pressure, and defeat. In their moments of failure, they become more like the rest of us.

Consider the Boston Bruins, who, after a record 65 wins in the regular season, were eliminated in the first round of the NHL playoffs by the Florida Panthers. The great expectations for the Stanley Cup have turned into an unbearable burden. Who can understand that? I can.

In the NBA playoffs, the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum rallied from a 3-0 deficit to tie the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Then, in Game 7, with a historic comeback in sight, they faltered, turning in some of the weakest performances of their careers.

Have you ever been on the verge of something great, only to fail spectacularly in front of a crowd? I have, like in that fifth-grade play where I forgot my lines, tripped on stage, and nearly broke my nose. Watching Brown and Tatum battle it out in front of millions was all too easy.

The red clay of Roland Garros, with its unpredictable bounces and grueling matches, reveals the harsh truths of sport like no other place.

Players enter the field looking like models, with tanned skin and immaculate clothes. But once the games begin, reality takes over.

At other Grand Slams, points can end quickly. At Roland Garros, they can stretch out like a John Coltrane solo, building pressure and intensity.

In the longest, most competitive games, players often experience both mental and physical agony. Doubt creeps in, muscles weaken, and once-pristine gear becomes soaked with sweat and stained with clay.

Wang didn't stay on court long enough to endure the pain against Swiatek. But France's Gaël Monfils did. The 36-year-old veteran, who was likely playing his last Grand Slam in front of his home crowd, won his first-round match despite trailing 4-0 in the fifth set. Along the way, he battled sore lungs and leg cramps. He won the match but was too exhausted to compete in the second round.

Time spares no one.

A few days later, a much younger player, Italian Jannik Sinner, faced Daniel Altmaier on the Suzanne Lenglen Court. Sinner, 21 and seeded No. 8, was expected to win easily.

He initially led, but then he struggled. An hour passed and Altmaier caught up. Another hour passed and the match was stalemate. Three hours turned into four. Sinner had two match points but lost them. They went to a fifth set. Sinner fell behind, then caught up, facing four match points and saving them all.

And then, after 5 hours and 26 minutes, Sinner watched a scorching serve fly past his racket for an ace. Match over. Final score: 6-7 (0), 7-6 (7), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5. It was the fifth-longest match in French Open history.

Sinner walked off the court looking disheveled and defeated, his face reflecting the vulnerability of a loser. In other words, he was wonderfully human.

By Stephe Garrol

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