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Steve Flink: Responding to Defeat

9/7/2007 1:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Imagine being a contender for a Grand Slam title, battling with all of your heart to outlast the field, doing everything in your power to avoid the almost unbearable sting of defeat. Tennis is a cruel sport because 128 players are entered in the men's and women's singles division, but only one survives the fortnight. That leaves an awful lot of disappointed competitors with unrealized dreams, broken spirits, and bruised egos. I don't envy any top flight player who must deal with losing at a major event. Maybe none of us can fully comprehend just how tough it is for these players to put themselves on the line at consequential times and come up short.

But the way I look at it, the leading competitors define their class and character more in defeat than they do in victory. Winning with grace is considerably easier than displaying that same quality after an arduous setback. Over the course of the last few days here at the U.S. Open, we have seen three formidable players suffer losses that clearly brought them the worst kind of internal pain. Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Roddick all bowed out of the season's last major. One member of that trio handled defeat with admirable equanimity and dignity. Another was sporting in some ways but edgy and defensive in other respects after losing. And one of these competitors was downright nasty and churlish in the aftermath of a U.S. Open exit.

Let's start with the latter. Serena Williams was ushered out of the Open by world No. 1 Justine Henin, suffering a third consecutive quarterfinal loss to the Belgian at the majors this year. Henin had already accounted for Williams at Roland Garros on the clay and on the grass at Wimbledon. Undoubtedly Serena had her heart set on making amends for those disappointments with a win on the hard courts in New York. But it was not to be. In a sparkling and gripping first set under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Serena and Justine played at a very high level. Henin served for the first set at 5-4, squandered a set point, got broken, and then had to save a set point at 5-6. She then played a superb tie-break, and gradually pulled away in the second set, winning 7-6 (3), 6-1.

To all neutral observers, two things were readily apparent: Henin was too good off the ground and too solid for Williams, who was short of match play and had not played a tournament since Wimbledon as she nursed an injured thumb. She was outplayed cross the board; it was as simple as that. But a thoroughly unsporting Serena would not give credit where it was due. Addressing the media after the match, asked if she thought her level dropped after the tie-break, Serena replied, "No, I just think she played better. I just think she made a lot of lucky shots and I made a lot of errors."

That was one among many surly comments made by Serena in her press conference. And she was way out of line to suggest Henin was lucky. Henin is too seasoned and consistent, too sound in her shot making and clear in her thinking, to be regarded as fortunate. She has earned all of her successes because she works inordinately hard and leaves nothing to chance. All through that brief press conference, Serena was surly and curt. That was understandable to some extent because it is never easy to walk into that room after losing. But she demeaned herself with her comments.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider Nadal. He had considered not playing the Open after an ongoing problem with his knee. He was in obvious discomfort during his first round win over wild card Alun Jones, seemed to improve physically in his next two matches, but then it all caught up with him during a fourth round meeting with his friend and countryman David Ferrer. Adding to his burdens, Nadal suffered from a finger cramp on his left hand. An invigorated Ferrer played out of his mind to beat Nadal for only the second time in four sets, while Nadal was not really himself.

So how did he deal with it? He was typically generous and respectful of his opponent. He was unwilling to offer alibis. He was a first rate professional, and despite his obvious distress at bowing out in the fourth round, the three-time French Open victor was nothing less than honorable despite the severe sting of his loss. He could have taught a class on post-match etiquette. Asked how much he was hurting and how significant his physical problems were, Nadal responded, "Well, I speak a lot about [that] all of the week. So I prefer not to speak about my body right now because always if I say something about my body, later someone thanks about it as an excuse. I don't want to put out any excuse. He played very good and he beat me."
Roddick served magnificently for two sets against Roger Federer, not even facing a break point. But, in the end, he lost again to the game's greatest player, falling to 1-14 in their career series. Federer won 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-2, and for the fourth year in a row Roddick has failed to win his second career major. He was understandably distraught when it was over. He was not as gracious as Nadal and he had his abrupt moments, but Roddick was clearly more sporting than Serena.

Queried about the difference between playing well and losing versus a poor performance in defeat, he said, "I'm not walking off with any questions in my head this time. I'm not walking with my head down. I played my ass off out there tonight. I played the right way. So, you know, that helps but that doesn't mean I can't be pissed off."

Later, he added, " Given the choice of losing playing well and losing playing badly, I'll take losing playing well any day of the week... I was having fun out there. I'd have to be completely out of touch not to realize what the atmosphere was like out there tonight. If I don't have fun doing that, then I'm not going to have fun playing tennis. It was a treat to play out there in that atmosphere."

On balance, despite some acerbic remarks and some brusque moments, Roddick did pretty well. Nadal's conference was very brief but he said all of the right things and made certain Ferrer's victory was not diminished. As for Serena, she did not do herself proud, projecting her haughtiest side, leaving herself open to intense criticism in the media, which is exactly what she got.

The bottom line is that the game's best players have a responsibility to not only win with honor but to lose with style. When renowned players lose matches without surrendering dignity, they enlarge their reputations and emerge victorious in the court of public opinion. That is something every top of the line player should permanently keep in mind.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com

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