“But there’s a look on Sampras’s face, now you have to be around sports long enough to recognise it, he’s the greatest player in the world and he’s been on the court with this guy way too long.”- Sports night season 1 ep 17.
This quote comes from this show about a fictional sports show(both are called sports night). A show created by a guy who also made a show about a fictional comedy show and a fictional news show, as well as wrote a play about Fansworth the guy who created the television, Aaron Sorkin seems to love making TV about TV. Anyway in this particular episode there was a long tennis match, a really long tennis match, much, much longer than that tennis match should have run. You see it was Pete Sampras playing against some guy who was ranked 117th in the world. Even if you don’t know tennis there are some names you know. You know about Pete Sampras and about Andre Agassi. You have heard tale of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. These are legends, they are titans and each in his time strode the sport of tennis like a colossus, spreading a shadow so huge and dark that everyone seemed to play in it and play badly. The game that was the focus of this episode was being played in 1999 when Pete Sampras was the man. He should have wiped the floor with this guy, given him some love(when a pun is that nicely served up I can’t resist.)
Instead he struggles and the game turns into a match, a contest of wills and wiles. It was a struggle and sweat dripped down their heads, muscles ached in their arms, their eyes were clouded with effort, their hearts beating to bursting, lactic acid building up and most of all they were in that place you go to when you are playing well against someone who is. But even here doubt creeps in. You knew it was a walkover and there’s a point when you as Sampras realise it’s not and that’s the point where the above quote comes in. This can have many physical manifestations, a wrinkling of the brow, a fresh appraisal, a grim set to the mouth. All the ways that say time for play as I knew it is over and now we get to work. I don’t know enough about sports to see the above moment but the quote resonated with me.
At first I thought it was a tennis match about the beginning of the end of Sampras. The thing with each of these tennis greats is they seem to have been the best person who ever played tennis until that title served the next one. I don’t know why this happens, I can get why after age sets in you can’t play at that level any more but records are always broken by the younger. As hard as it may be to believe right now in some years Hussein Bolt will be the guy whose records are been broken by this impossible blur of a man running and running and running so fast we can’t keep up with it even with thought. And this happens in every sport. Like the ancient gods of Greece rising up against the titans. When I first heard the quote I thought it was about such a turn. I thought it was about the moment when someone who was the best in the world at something suddenly realises that they are not any more.
Can you imagine the look in their eyes at that moment? The moment when they know beyond a doubt that they are not the one any more. They have to be swept aside as this younger better version of who they used to be runs past them, serves harder, jumps higher, swims further than they could. It’s lucky that sportsmen are drummed with sportsmanship. That they are taught to lose and to lose graciously. That they know that defeat is as much a part of victory as victory is otherwise the look in their eyes at that second would be terrible to behold. It would be sad and sudden. A blink may be all the time we would get to see it but in that blink we would see the wiping away of the person they had built themselves up as. You can’t be the best without knowing you are the best. The kind of false humility needed to not acknowledge your gifts is not the kind bestowed on the great. So he would know and have known for a while that he was the best. I can’t speak for everyone but if I was the best at anything that would be the internal reference system I would use on myself. If I was a roman emperor I would need that slave who whispered over and over “memento mori” because I can forget that I will die.
To have your internal reference system taken away is not something that’s nice to see. For a moment you are lost. Your definition of who you are is plucked away and for that moment you are lost in a desert where the rays of a sun burning angry scorch away the anchor you held on to. I thought that was the look they were referring to and it got me curious enough to explore my thoughts on it.
At the end of the episode Sampras wins as he was always going to but “you should have seen the look on this guy’s face when Sampras hugged him at the end of the game.” That’s the other side of it isn't it. The part that takes away the ugliness of sports. I have a cousin who was an amazing basketball player, I saw him while I was in Kisumu. The problems associated with playing ball in Kenya namely the lack of facilities mean he’s not as good as he used to be. A decade ago he was a ghost of a player and he told me how much he misses it. He missed being part of a team, having these people who you dig in the trenches with. This group of people who are a part of your life, a part of your struggles and patience, who are with you through blood, sweat, tears and breakage. Who jump with you to win and lose and all through this roller coaster of emotions and events are your friends more than anything or anyone else.
He also missed the competition, the striving to be better. Being put up against a team and knowing that the harder you play the more you can achieve. He missed being pushed as Sampras must have been pushed by that guy because competition was part of self-improvement to him. The drive to be better than those guys win or lose, but to try because it makes both you and them better he missed it so much. And to tell you the truth am not sure which one he missed more, the team spirit or the team competition but he did miss it.
I guess this is important for sports, to have your heart beat by wanting to win. A true sportsman wants to win but he also knows that there is just as much of victory in defeat as there is in victory but in both there is competition and this is what is important. He didn’t tell me he missed winning. He said he missed competition. And maybe I had misinterpreted the look they were talking about in Sampras’s eyes. For sure it wasn’t the realisation of a downward spiral, it may not even have been the grim determination of having to work to win it may have been the joy that comes in knowing that for a few moment you get to do what you love to do more than anything else. He had realised he got to compete.