I love competition.* In athletics competition provides a picture of justice; there is no place for mercy. At its highest level the goal in competition is to exploit, with honor, any weakness that can be exploited. It is the duty of an athlete to pursue victory, anything less than complete effort is disrespectful to the opponent and to the sport itself. This does not apply to recreational athletics, where the primary goal is usually recreation instead of competition.**
Today at Wimbledon Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Grigor Dimitrov competed. I only saw the final set, but it was very entertaining. Both players were playing the highest quality tennis. Passing shots were flying, diving volleys were made, and both players showed controlled abandon on the court. What really made the match great though, was the ending.
In a fourth set extended tie break Tsonga finally prevailed after a long rally. The match was over. Dimitrov had fought off five match points up to then, and after all the high pressure tennis and exertion he just collapsed to the ground as his last shot missed. He had given everything he had and lost. Tsonga raised his arms in celebration. It is a scene of victory common in tennis tournaments.
But then it become extraordinary. Tsonga noticed Dimitrov fall to the ground, he ran forward and jumped over the net, knelt beside his opponent and offered a hand to help him up. Then he gave him a hug, not a wimpy and awkward hug but a real one. As they walked off the court Tsonga patted Dimitrov’s back while offering some words of encouragement. It was a touching scene.
I love what that moment captured. While the match was under way Tsonga strove to defeat Dimitrov. He had no mercy. Yet as soon as the match ended he offered genuine sympathy and encouragement to the man he had bested. It fulfilled the conscientious competitor’s goal: I will crush you and comfort you.
*In some respects I am ridiculously competitive, yet I can normally turn it off when I want to, because of this many people think I’m not competitive. I find outlets for it where I am not likely to alienate others. I think a strong desire to win is not a bad thing in itself, but it can be dangerous.
**A major source of contention is the mixing of people with a primary goal of serious competition with those that are seeking mere recreation. The two are often incompatible. In athletics I love ruthless competition, so I’ve usually stayed away from organized recreational sports. It pains me greatly to hear “Nice try!” and “Good job!” being offered as encouragement to athletes who failed due to lack of effort or terrible technique.