Professional sport is a tough way to earn a living. Forget the glamour of a Wimbledon final, a British Grand Prix, a Cricket World Cup final… those are just the tips of the iceberg, the culmination of all the hard work done in training, in touring, in relentless, often monotonous, practice and preparation. As Muhammad Ali once famously said: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
Those of us lucky enough to watch and report on professional sport for our living know this.
We see the sacrifices the players have to make, the all-consuming commitment, the dedication to seek the tiniest of improvements that might just tilt a decisive point or a crucial putt in their favour. We admire the constant search for that extra one per cent, and we shake our head in wonder at a catch taken or a tackle that which would be impossible for most men or women.
We are not, however, cheerleaders for a player or a performance regardless of what we have witnessed with our own eyes. When a game fails to live up to expectations, asking why that was so is a valid line of questioning. Probing the reasons for failure is not only valid, it is part of the job.
Sportsmen and women always want to see the positives in a performance, even a losing one. The need to do this is vital to their mindset because the next day they have to get back onto the practice court, the driving range, in the saddle etc, and unless they have total belief in their ability, they won’t be able to compete at the highest level. This year’s Wimbledon sensation, 15-year-old Cori Gauff, said her goal was “to win Wimbledon.” She meant this year, not at some point in the future.
This inner core of belief is often touted as what sets the champions apart from the very, very good. And there are coaches, agents, trainers, managers, psychologists and analysts who are there to encourage players to pick themselves up, to go again, to keep working.
But being relentlessly positive regardless of circumstances is not the role of a sportswriter.
And so to Johanna Konta: the British No1 has had a successful season, rising up the rankings and reaching the semi-finals of the French Open and the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. Good for her. The press has been full of admiration for her performances and rightly so. But both those matches looked, on paper, to be winnable ones against lower-ranked opponents, so defeat is bound to bring questions, even criticism.
Konta wasn’t being picked on or patronised, as she claimed, she was being invited to assess the impact of 33 unforced errors on the outcome of a match. If she genuinely doesn’t think that is why she lost, she is entitled to say so, but it’s reasonable to ask the question.