If there ever is a sore loser, that would be me. I never learned to lose well, even though I lost a lot when I attempted to play any game. When I played badminton I would throw the racket on the ground when I was losing and generally act like a dweeb.
Sport, it is said, goes beyond winning and losing, and the scoreboard. It isn’t a litany of scorecards and records and trophies. When tennis great Bjorn Borg hit on hard times, he wanted to sell his trophies away. Down on luck athletes give away their hard earned silverware and auction their memorabilia when times get tough. A few unfortunate ones sell their souls for a few bucks more. If everything comes at a price, what is it that transcends the limited measures of success?
In life, and in sport, the very definition of winning changes over time.
But where does that leave losing?
By sporting standards, it isn’t very tough to define at all. There can, after all, be just one winner.
Only one runner can cross the finish line first.
Only one team can score more goals than the other.
Only one player can score more points than their opponent.
Only one team can overhaul a score or rout out the opposition.
It was just about a year back when PV Sindhu suddenly stamped her arrival on the limited smorgasbord that is Indian sport. Like hockey usurped cricket’s throne a couple of month’s back on a day when India and Pakistan squared off against each other in a tepid Champions Trophy Final, PV Sindhu pulled off a coup of her own on Sunday when people weren’t even aware that an India-Sri Lanka match was taking place. The setting was perfect. The skies were in no mood to relent, forcing people to stay indoors.
In a year’s time, Sindhu has gone from introducing herself to the world to becoming the face of badminton in India. Saina Nehwal, who fell out of with Pullela Gopichand has some catching up to do even though she began the race before. The loss in the Olympic finals ensured a silver medal but for Sindhu’s followers, silver is now old school.
A few weeks back, just like Sindhu, the Indian Women’s cricket team fell short at the finish line. Sometimes even heartbreak can win many hearts. The most heartening sign was the confidence exhibited by the players in spite of being relative unknowns and always being under the giant shadow that men’s cricket team casts over them. When asked who her favourite male cricketer was, Mithali Raj retorted and asked if the journalist had ever asked a male cricketer who their favorite female cricketer was.
That’s what you call a winning reply.
Okuhara and Sindhu, both 22 years of age, didn’t begin the first set as equals. Sindhu stole the march and at 11-5, the tide was on her side. Okuhara’s deftness on the court and powerful net game forced Sindhu’s hand and the errors began to show. The first set went to Okuhara but Sindhu came back in the second. At different points, each player was trying to slow down the game, gasp for air and regain their control of the game. Just when you thought Sindhu had a firm grasp, she would smash and somehow find the net. As the players began to tire, the rallies got longer. The chair umpire seemed to have a flight to catch, admonishing the players every time they halted the game in the bid to retrieve themselves.
Watching them was fascinating and tiring at the same time. At its best, sport makes even the viewer sweat bullets.
At 19-18 in the third set, it looked like Sindhu would finally slay the demons that had come in the way of her winning gold in Rio 2016. In that match, she was clearly outclassed and towards the end, Carolina Marin stole the march on her. A year later, there was no such let up in intensity. In its own way, badminton is a kind of gymnastics. Players contort their bodies to smash, drop and return. In their hands, the speed at which the shuttlecock travels can put a bullet to shame.
19 points. That’s where Sindhu would be stranded, the promised land of a gold just two points, two strokes, two smashes, two drops, two anythings, away. Those are the moments when you begin to make deals with a god you don’t even believe in. Or make a promise you will forget once the match is over. When the end came, Okuhara found that extra reserve of energy that all winners have after they have climbed a steep mountain like no other. An epic battle that had lasted almost 2 hours was given a fitting finale. The victor could scarcely believe she had won. Her opponent could scarcely believe she had lost. People who were watching the match from their seats could now take off their imaginary seat belts and breathe.
Sindhu took a few minutes to regain from the physical battle and then the realization of the result sunk in. She would have to save her winner’s speech for another day. The most honest statement of the day came from Okuhara, who when asked how she felt, simply said ‘tired.’
If losing is tiring, try winning.
In his retirement speech, the great Andre Agassi said:
“The scoreboard said I lost today. But what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments.”
We lose. It’s a part of life. When we lose perspective, hope, dreams, enthusiasm,there is no scoreboard to help us find our way back. We climb the imaginary ladder of success and nearly kill ourselves by trying to reach the finish line.
We win. That is a part of life too.
But neither have a measure.
How do you know whether you’re winning or losing? Or, at the end, how do you know if you’ve won or lost?
At 22, Sindhu has already come within a whisker of winning an Olympic gold and a World Championship. If only she could count the number of young girls waking up wanting to be like her.
On Sunday, the scoreboard said PV Sindhu lost.
What it didn’t say was what she won.
And even if you go looking for it, the scoreboard is the last place you will find it.