Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sports: Drama on the grass

Despite its reputation as a way to escape the workaday world, sport contains all the harsh reality you could ever ask for. There's a winner and a loser, there are runs of good and bad luck that have nothing to do with the participants, there are games or matches that are just plain boring (even for the players).

Take the longest tennis match ever played, a grueling 10-hour Wimbledon first round encounter between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut (it's unfinished even as I type this). The media tried to play up the heroism, grit and professionalism of the two players; though the praise got a bit hyperbolic, the sportsmanship and competitive fire on display was evident.

Actually watching the match, though, was depressing. Around 80(!) games into the fifth set, the 6'9" Isner started to lumber around like a zombie, seemingly capable of only a lurch to the left or right. When Mahut asked to stop play because of darkness, Isner wanted to continue on. At first I wondered why Isner, who was physically spent, wouldn't welcome an 18 hour delay to rest up and recharge.

But then it hit me: He's a professional tennis player, and no matter how extraordinary the match is, it's still a job. Whatever happens, win or lose, there'll always be another round, another opponent, another tournament to grind through. Might as well finish this one now, and get it over with.

* * *

Interestingly enough, though, on the same day Isner and Mahut were grimly duelling in London, the U.S. soccer team defeated Algeria, scoring an improbable last-minute goal that looked like something out of a poorly scripted Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

In that moment, all the negative parts of sporting competition fell away. There wasn't even really the sting of defeat for the losers, as Algeria would have been out of the tournament if the match had remained a tie. Instead there was just elation, for a team and for millions of fans around the country. If Isner v. Mahut echoed the endless slog many people find themselves in during the workday, U.S. v. Algeria represented the passion and emotion that you feel after a job well done.

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