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Pity poor Aryna Sabalenka, beaten in the final of the US Open by teen sensation Coco Gauff. Behind-the-scenes footage published earlier this week observes the 25-year-old Belarusian calmly processing her defeat: standing in a training room she removes her racket from her bag, then thrashes it against the floor repeatedly and chucks it in the bin.
The clip, no more than 30 seconds long, is the perfect distillation of a loser’s rage; combining a veneer of quiet professionalism (she does it all in seeming silence) with the daftness of a toddler’s ire. The clip immediately went viral, an excruciating glimpse into the psyche of an elite sportsperson in an arena in which defeat is more usually accompanied, in public at least, by a demure acceptance of one’s inferiority and a smile. That Sabalenka harboured such a basic frustration about her defeat in a final in which she saw her one-set lead snatched away revealed her as human after all.
That the camera captured such a private outburst has raised questions about the ethics of what should be seen behind-the-scenes. Judy Murray, Andy Murray’s mother and a tennis coach, was quick to condemn the circumstances in which the film had been released. “This footage should never have been made public,” she wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, “a private moment in an empty training room.” Her post only served to draw more attention to the video, which has now been viewed some 22mn times.
I have watched the racket-smashing many times and I find it far more entertaining than the actual game. Sabalenka’s manner seems so calm and measured even when she’s tossing her racket in the trash. In public, most sports personalities come across as media-coached robotic avatars. To see such a cold-hard anger made me want to celebrate the sore loser.
Losing sucks: whether you’re in a major international sporting competition, or competing for another job. The ghastly tug of disappointment mixed with envy, frustration and self-loathing rarely makes for a good look. Some people can better mask their rancour, others pickle in the grudge. But graciousness is overrated, I embrace the ugly fail.
Social competition has never been felt more keenly and yet the word “failure” is still taboo. We score our lives in likes and follows, accrue followers on social media, and follow reality shows in which contestants are pitted against each other in every kind of arena — from clothes-making to wild survival and from finding brides to baking cakes. We order food and products from services who must deliver in ever more competitive slots. Everything has been gamified, but despite the high-stakes world in which we operate, we rarely acknowledge the more bilious side of how it feels to lose.
Instead, failure has been repackaged into some sort of “learning journey” towards self-fulfilment rather than an expression of abject defeat. It isn’t that we are entirely unsuitable for the job we have applied for, or been outsmarted by better candidates, we have simply met “stumbling blocks” that have precluded us from being our best selves. We aren’t desperately unpopular on Instagram because our images are dull and our lives uninteresting. Failure is the fault of others, we rarely blame ourselves. Schools dissuade parents from cheering individuals, because it stigmatises less able students, and hence we celebrate “participation” over results.
We try to bury the shame of failure by pretending it’s in fact something else. Which is totally ridiculous. Because losing and failure is an inevitable fact of life. This week has seen most children going back to school: many are entering university and a new academic milieu which will find them mingling with new peers. The greatest shock to many will be the discovery of how truly unspectacular they are. Acknowledging the insufferable truth that sometimes we cannot do something as well as others is surely vital for our mental health. Even if it makes us angry and want to smash things up.
Recognising our limitations may not be the most fashionable of sentiments in this era of Nike-esque exhortations to live the dream. There seems a popular misconception that, should we “believe” it, everything is within our grasp. And that may be so, just look at Gauff. What is less popularly communicated is how much work, hardship and disappointment fulfilling that dream might actually entail.
I cherished watching Sabalenka smashing her racket in a quiet room. It was refreshing to see someone — especially a woman — taking a knock-back without Victorian graciousness. I’m not endorsing violence against tennis rackets, nor suggesting that, on encountering failure, you should chuck your toys in the nearest bin. But Sabalenka’s anger was a reminder that you only take out what you put in. Sometimes, things don’t go your way, and failure is a crude humiliation. But this can be used to your advantage. Certainly, I am driven by just as many petty grudges as I am by any virtue. I’ve happily charted the failures, and used them as fuel to climb that hill again. Sure it’s no comfort to admit defeat, but feeling bitter and vengeful, rather than blithely optimistic, can be a strangely motivating tool.
Email Jo at [email protected]