To Be Or Not To Be … Yourself, in Defeat or Victory?

And so the journey nears an end. It has produced winners and losers. There are victims and survivors. All have walked the contested path, channeling the very best of themselves, to varying degrees.

This weekend was England’s moment. World Class sport, no matter where you turned. Unlike Brazil’s footballing theatre of dreams, on Wimbledon’s hallowed grass, through Sheffield’s narrow streets, on Silverstone’s storied tarmac, elite athletes and performers stretched to reach.

They sought to bring forth the very best of themselves. They tried their best to ring their opponents’ bells. Unlike most of the last 8 of the Mundial, they did not shy away from the moment. They did not quail.

They asked questions of their opponents. They didn’t spare themselves from a withering examination either. It was either a ‘series finale of the heart’, or an uninhibited beginning from the very start.

I said on Saturday morning, I couldn’t imagine the theatre of sport getting any better than the thirteen hour span I had just witnessed. Last night & this morning, I did not need my imagination anymore as competitive greatness unfolded before me.

After sitting through the last two agonizing World Cup quarter-finals, I had pretty much had enough of watching athletes competing within themselves, too ‘handicapped’ by the fear of losing.

Whether it was indoctrinated or a result of their own choosing, I watched creative players losing all sense of imagination. I saw their sense of endeavour handcuffed by the situation. Someone had told them, or they were telling themselves, they had to play not to lose.

That left them palpably afraid to win.

Not so in England this weekend. Whether wielding a carbon composite, stringed weapon of choice. Whether riding a steel-wheeled conveyance or pushing tin on four wheels, bare inches above the ground.

A pair, a peloton, a grand prix grid. All of them populated by people not afraid to be themselves. To reach deep within and compete to win, with every skerrik of identity they had. Leaving no regrets of near misses. No recriminatory reflections of ‘timid’ officials.

Starting with Petra Kvitova on Saturday, the example had been set. These athletes would come to play. They would play to win. The way an eagle flies. The way a lion prowls its den.

While Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer battled, the peloton of the Tour de France rattled. Through the Yorkshire streets and roads they flew, not content to coast to the finish in Sheffield, on Day 2.

Further south in Silverstone, two homegrown lads fought to make the moment their own. As has become the norm this year though, no matter how honest and pure the competition, the machinery walks more resoundingly than all the talent in the world can talk, or petition.

Sometimes the two can be married together. Pre-eminent driver in a peerless machine. After the start only daylight is left for the pack to chase. Of their leader, there is nought to be seen. This year that dynamic has been embodied in two. Nico Rosberg of Mercedes, and his teammate too. Local lad Lewis Hamilton, who won comfortably thanks to his teammate’s gearbox problem.

Everybody tried as hard as they could. But the combination of machine and driver was far too good. It wasn’t a case of playing not to lose. You gave everything you had, recognising where you stood.

That’s pretty much stopped happening, since the knockout stage commenced at Brazil 2014. I guess that’s because playing not to lose not only stifles the spectacle. It narrows the field, dragging your opponent down with you. More often than not, a case of your fear bleeding through, instead of them taking advantage and feeding on it to win.

Now the Tour de France has just started. The finish in Paris, three weeks away, you’d be forgiven for thinking their northern English sojourn, was just for marking time. Not seriously contesting the ‘Maillot Jeune’.

Just tell that to Mark Cavendish. In his Mum’s home village he ended up on his back, his dislocated collarbone a result of a hungry stack. So ravenous was he to win Stage 1, he took no prisoners until he ended up as one.

But no-one can complain he held anything back. You can’t say that either about Stage 2’s leading pack. One by one they loomed as the finish neared. All the pre-race favourites were clustered here. Having broken the back of the lesser riders’ resistance, the GC elite harnessed their own victorious insistence.

It may have been much earlier than usual, but these men refused to coast. They demanded those left in contention for the day, acknowledge they would have a heavy price to pay. If indeed they wanted to win, they needed to gamble a bit of skin.

Everyone had a go up the front. The favourites not stinting the effort, not shirking the grunt. But in the end the one who gambled most, put them to the sword, was Vincenzo Niballi. He wasn’t afraid to put his neck out, his balls to the wall. A GC rider in yellow from Day 2, determined to defy them all.

All the way to Paris, France. A long way from Sheffield, England in time, terrain and emotional & physical distance. But this Italian wasn’t content  to merely not lose. He showed his best in order to win, disdaining a smokescreen, not needing to hide. Confident of continually producing his best.

Let’s ride!

That was an exhortation Roger Federer never forgot. After a bright start, he’d fought hard but not avoided the rot. At 5-2 down in the fourth, his hopes seemingly shot. For Novak Djokovic, normal service had been resumed. His opponent’s artistry had been subsumed. By his younger legs, his iron-forged heart, Djokovic had once again taken Federer to that place where even his best game would fall apart.

Every other time this had happened, Federer meekly slunk away. Uncharacteristically hiding behind excuses, petulantly vowing, ‘another day’. Maybe Roger found it within himself to yell, ‘Enough!’ To cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war. To unpick the lock of his competitive door.

Until then he had found artistry in desperation. Now playing unafraid to lose, he produced with inspiration. It wasn’t about recognising an impostor in victory or defeat. It was about playing to win until you lost, or were triumphant, glorious.

The meek Federer who Djokovic had subdued, up to now and so many times before. This inhibited imposter was banished and by a warrior replaced. He found an annihilating rhythm and to Djokovic served.

He brought out his best, asking Novak to prove it was victory he deserved. It got us a fifth set and served us a reminder, of who Federer had been, but who he is no longer.

The man who deserved to win took out the title, when Djokovic finally broke Federer’s will for survival. The greatness that Federer can no longer muster would have allowed him to accelerate, transforming the opposing strutting rooster into a feather duster.

Time dictated it was not to be. The level Djokovic demanded was in the end too high, for this version of Federer to see. Instinct and memory could only take him so far. Now Djokovic rules the roost, having raised the competitive bar.

Thankfully for everyone watching, by the end neither man was afraid to lose. The more fraught the situation, the more brilliant shot they would choose. Like eagles flying, authentic in the moment, only one could end up a lion. The other had to lose.

But each man accepted the possibility of defeat, while not relinquishing their quest to repeat. Either glories of the past.

Or, return journeys to Number 1. At last.

Comments

  1. A glorious weekend of sport. Gloriously captured. Thanks Gregor.
    Dismissed. You can go to bed now. Back Wednesday I hope.

  2. Beachcrave says

    “The meek Federer who Djokovic had subdued, up to now and so many times before. This inhibited imposter was banished and by a warrior replaced. He found an annihilating rhythm and to Djokovic served.”

    Truly lyrical – a sporting ode.

    Thanks GL.

  3. Gregor Lewis says

    Cheers PB; BC!
    Thanks for your kind admiring.
    Here’s hoping the words elicited on Wednesday & Thursday mornings prove to be from sporting action that is just as inspiring.

    Until then …
    … grl OVER & OUT!

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