The invisible value of losing: a celebration of humanity in sports

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She didn’t win a single match.

On Saturday, during the third round of the French Open, China’s Wang Xinyu faced Iga Swiatek, the reigning women’s singles champion and top seed. Despite Wang’s impressive credentials as a 21-year-old who reached a career-high 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 weary, the exhausted, the fighters, and the laggards. The athletes who endure public defeats. Long live the losers in sports.

The past week has showcased many such athletes, and more are yet to come.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to the French Open’s clay courts.

The NBA and NHL playoffs have reached their finals. College softball, rapidly gaining popularity, is vying for the NCAA Division I championships. The Oklahoma Sooners are chasing a third consecutive title, adding to their Division I record of 51 straight victories after defeating Stanford in an overtime semifinal. Let’s spare a thought for the Sooners’ many vanquished opponents.

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

That’s understandable, but my admiration lies with the tennis player striving to win just one Grand Slam match, the basketball star missing crucial free throws, and the hockey goalie who lets the winning shot slip by.

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

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

There’s 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-breaking 65 wins in the regular season, were eliminated in the first round of the NHL playoffs by the Florida Panthers. The heavy expectations for the Stanley Cup turned into an unbearable weight. Who can relate to 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, delivering some of the weakest performances of their careers.

Have you ever been on the brink of something great, only to fail spectacularly in public? I have, like that fifth-grade play where I forgot my lines, tripped on stage, and nearly broke my nose. Watching Brown and Tatum struggle in front of millions was all too relatable.

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

Players enter the court looking like fashion models, their skin tanned and their outfits pristine. But once the matches begin, reality sets in.

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

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

Wang didn’t stay on the court long enough to endure such suffering against Swiatek. But Gaël Monfils of France did. The 36-year-old veteran, possibly 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, Italy’s Jannik Sinner, faced Daniel Altmaier on the Suzanne Lenglen Court. Sinner, 21 and seeded eighth, should have won easily.

He initially led but then struggled. An hour passed, and Altmaier caught up. Another hour went by, and the match became a stalemate. Three hours turned into four. Sinner had two match points but lost them. They moved 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 blistering serve whiz 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.

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