Roger Federer, Tom Brady and the Agony of Defeat
Why the cliché is true: it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.
Almost 38 years old, Roger Federer was a point away from winning his ninth Wimbledon title.
His wife Mirka had her head down, she couldn’t bear to watch it unfold.
On his sharp serve, he had two chances to win the match.
Tennis history was in the making.
Taking down Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic back-to-back in the same major tournament had only been done one previous time…
Being the oldest male tennis player to ever win one of the 4 major tournaments…
And then suddenly it wasn’t. Two points squandered in a matter of seconds and likely the match as well.
It took another 45 minutes, but ultimately Roger Federer fell short in the incredible marathon that was the 2019 Wimbledon final.
I happened to be visiting my son at his summer camp in Pennsylvania and caught parts of the final set outside the canteen.
Every spectator standing there was rooting for Federer, as was apparently everyone in the stadium, minus the relatives of Novak Djokovic.
To add insult to injury, this was the third time that Federer was a point away from eliminating Djokovic in a major tournament and couldn’t seal the deal.
Federer isn’t the only legend to fall short numerous times. Tom Brady is a six-time Super Bowl champion. He is considered the G.O.A.T., the greatest of all time.
But the line between G.O.A.T. and being a “goat” is razor thin.
In Super Bowl 50 in 2017, the Atlanta Falcons had to make just one of about 15 different plays and they would be champions. They shockingly missed their myriad opportunities. Brady had an astonishing victory.
But what many people forget is that Tom Brady had a ten-year drought from winning Super Bowls. From 2004 to 2014, the Patriots lost two super bowls and missed the game numerous other times.
In one of those seasons, 2007, the Patriots were attempting to complete a perfect season. They were about 50 seconds short of accomplishing that feat.
A feat not accomplished since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
After the heart-breaking loss, the only one of their great season, many assumed Brady would never win another Super Bowl.
He has already won three more and counting.
How did Tom Brady rebound from such droughts and shattering loses in his career?
How does Roger Federer pick up the pieces and over come such a monumental disappointment?
King Solomon sheds some light: “The righteous fall seven times, then they rise up again” (Proverbs 24:16).
Many assume the verse to be saying that the rising up is disconnected from the falling down. But Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) explained in a letter to a struggling student that it is specifically because of the various shortcomings and failures that a person rises up and ultimately succeeds.
Albeit painful, losing enables a person to recalibrate. It enables them to explore the process and reconnect with their deeper motivations in the pursuit.
The wisdom gained from previous attempts can often be the difference in moving forward, especially when one had been so close to the desired result.
Being able to leverage past experience and having been in ‘the moment’ previously can help calm a person should the moment arise again.
Judaism places the primary focus in the toil and the process of growth, not the result.
The Jewish perspective is that our task is maximum effort – that is fully in our realm of choice; only then does God pave the way to success. But the actual result is ultimately out of our control.
It is not our effort that leads directly to the success; rather the effort is a pre-requisite for motivating God to shower us with success, apart and distinct from our effort.
We focus on doing our part and then trust God with the results.
Roger Federer intuited this in his post-match interview by saying he gave it everything he had and therefore was okay in defeat. He realized that the results were actually beyond his grasp. In the arena of effort, he was a huge success.
Federer owns the record for the most Wimbledon titles.
He also owns the two most devastating loses at Wimbledon, one to his rival Rafael Nadal in 2008 and now to his other rival Novak Djokovic in 2019.
But according to Judaism's measuring stick, Federer has a perfect record.