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Winners Get Their Due. But Losers Are Splendidly Human.


She couldn’t win a single game.

Within the third round of the French Open on Saturday, Wang Xinyu of China needed to imagine there was no less than a likelihood she could defeat Iga Swiatek, the event’s reigning women’s singles champion and top seed. Wang isn’t any slouch, in any case. She is a hard-hitting 21-year-old who in April hit a career-high rating of 59th on the planet, and she will be able to put up a viable fight against the highest.

But she lost, and it was as ugly as will be: 6-0, 6-0 — in tennis parlance, a dreaded double bagel. The match didn’t last for much longer than the warm-up.

I say there’s glory in that sort 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 lots of them over the past week or so, and we’ll soon be seeing more.

In fact, this won’t occur only on the slippery clay on the French Open.

The N.B.A. and N.H.L. playoffs have finally reached their finals. College softball, growing fast in popularity, is in the combo with the N.C.A.A. Division I championships. The Oklahoma Sooners are aiming for a 3rd straight title — and so as 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.

A lot of the narrative will concentrate on the winners of those championships. That’s only natural. The world’s best athletes stretch and bend the boundaries of human potential. The perfect of the most effective even seem able to controlling time. No wonder we watch them perform with awe that feels existential. They’ve grow to be godlike in our world.

That’s superb and comprehensible, 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 was once.

Why? Well, the victors are at all times going to get their due. But to err, as everyone knows, is human — entirely and beautifully so. And those that lose in so many alternative 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. Within the act of failing, they grow to be, even when only briefly, more like the remainder of us schmoes.

So we will take solace within the Boston Bruins, who posted a record 65 wins within the regular season, promptly losing in the primary round of the N.H.L. playoffs to the Florida Panthers. High expectations for the Stanley Cup became dead weight. Who can relate? I do know I can.

Speaking of Boston, within the N.B.A. playoffs, the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum battled back from a 3-0 hole to tie the Miami Heat within 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 many 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 by 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 tens of millions tuning in.

The red clay at Roland Garros — where no step is certain, no bounce will be counted on and every match can turn right 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 opposite 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’ll go on and on, pressure mounting, tempo constructing in a crescendo.

In probably the most prolonged and competitive matches you’ll be able to 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 best way, he struggled past aching lungs and a storm of leg cramps. He eked out the match, but was so drained 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 nobody.

Just 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 must have won without much trouble.

He nosed ahead early, but struggled. An hour passed. Altmaier caught up. One other hour went by. The match became a stalemate. Three hours turned to 4. Sinner held two match points — and coughed up each. They headed right into a fifth set. Sinner fell behind and got here back: He faced 4 match points, but won all of them.

After which … after which, after 5 hours 26 minutes, Sinner watched a screaming serve fly past his outstretched racket for an ace. Game. Set. Match. Final rating: 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 tussled, his face betraying the self-doubt common to losers. In other words, he was beautifully human.

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