Ons Jabeur has shown how to live with defeat – like it’s the end of the world | Sport

new balance


Play to win, obviously. But if you must lose, then try to lose like Ons Jabeur. Lose like you mean it. Lose and be devoured by great, greedy sobs. Lose and weep on the shoulder of Kate Middleton and try not to laugh at the irony of being counselled on the virtues of hard work and perseverance by a literal princess.

Lose a Wimbledon final by hitting twice as many winners as your opponent and making twice as many unforced errors. Lose and bring the house down with a joke about how ugly you’re going to look crying on camera. Lose like you live, with all your heart and soul. Lose so charmingly that nobody really remembers who won.

With apologies to the new Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, a wonderful technician with her own gripping backstory of heartbreak and restitution, there are some athletes whose defeats are somehow even more compelling than their victories. Jabeur is one of them. From the moment the heavy favourite gave up a break advantage in the first set of the final on Saturday it was clear what we were watching was not so much a tennis match as a piece of performance theatre: a panorama of human turmoil and human frailty, of ambition and emotion and ultimately straight-sets failure.

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We hear a lot in sport about bouncing back from defeat. There is an entire canon of aphorism and self-help literature devoted to overcoming adversity: how to process and reconceptualise failure, how to learn the right lessons, how to come back stronger. Sportswriters love nothing more than a redemption arc, as if the initial setback were little more than a plot device. A literary agent once told me that books about failure don’t sell; most readers want to aspire and be uplifted. So we dwell comparatively little on the act of losing itself: what it means to lose, how it feels watching somebody lose. Because there is a definite art to losing, and though she would desperately wish it otherwise, Jabeur has perfected it.

Watch her tearful on-court interview, when she simply refuses to put a sugary gloss on the pain of defeat, refuses to indulge in artifice, refuses to take the positives even as Annabel Croft tries to steer her back to more sanguine territory. “You should be so proud of how well you played,” Croft says. “I wish I could continue to the end,” Jabeur laments. And she cries again and in that moment millions want to cry with her because Jabeur is too busy being distraught to waste any effort on trying to salve anybody else’s feelings.

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At which point we should probably establish some ground rules. In particular, we need to distinguish losing well from the wildly different concept of being a “good loser”. The latter, supposedly tied up in ideas of sportsmanship and fair play, is the sort of moralistic crypto-imperial nonsense that late-Victorian Britain seemed to churn out like ore. Stiff upper lip. Take it like a man. Handshakes, well played, old chum. You will have the vote when you are good and ready.

By contrast, losing well has nothing whatsoever to do with stoicism or dignity or courteously congratulating your opponent or quietly acquiescing to your fate. Indeed, some of the best losers are “bad losers”. José Mourinho is a spellbindingly brilliant loser. Andy Murray has always been far more entertaining when he loses than when he wins: a ball of pure gnarled rage, bellowing unintelligibly into the middle distance like a man who has lost his shoes at a gig. Give me vengeful Serena over beatific Serena, give me wounded and quivering-lipped Cristiano over “siuuuu” Cristiano any day of the week.

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Marketa Vondrousova hugs Ons Jabeur after winning the Wimbledon title.
Marketa Vondrousova hugs Ons Jabeur after winning the Wimbledon title. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

Nor is it strictly necessary to scowl and rant, or weep copiously into the camera, or accost the referee in the car park afterwards. Play to win, but if you must lose then lose like England’s cricketers, still beaming away after losing the women’s Ashes by a cruelly fine margin. Lose like Nat Sciver-Brunt, trying to hit a six off the last ball of the match. Lose like Tammy Beaumont, unable to wipe the chuckles from her face, because even a three-run defeat can be the most amazing buzz when you’ve just played in the greatest series in history with your best mates in front of capacity crowds.

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Lose like Mark Cavendish, sullen and broken in the back of a team car as his Tour de France dreams crumble in the dust. Cavendish is a terrific winner but he is arguably even more interesting when he loses: stripped back, stripped raw, uninterested in your beige platitudes or words of comfort. Meanwhile, there is no more poignant sight in golf than the spectacle of Rory McIlroy solemnly trudging up the back nine while he loses yet another major championship to some random American with two surnames for a name.

What links all the above is a kind of emotional authenticity, the kind you can never quite capture in a viral video or streaming documentary. You know that as Jabeur cries, she is not simply mourning her own defeat but the hopes of the millions across Africa and the Arab world that were invested in her. You know that for all the optimistic prognoses, in a rapidly shifting women’s game there are no guarantees she will ever win the grand slam she craves.

You know what she has been through to get there, and what it will take for her to get another chance. You know, above all, for winning to mean anything, losing has to mean everything.

new balance



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