After two weeks of single-eliminated bouts, two men and two women will go head-to-head for the US Open Singles titles. The whole sporting world will be talking about the match, however, I want to focus on what happens immediately after, in what is one of the cruelest and brutal traditions of this great game: Runner-Up Speeches.
Often bland, sometimes entertaining, and on occasion down-right depressing, the unique tradition of making the runner-up give a speech after losing a final is one of the strangest conventions in all of sports.
Tennis players are expected to show sportsmanship, humility, composure, gratitude and perspective just moments after failing short of achieving something you have dedicated your life to.
And yet, until this was pointed out to me by a sports-enthusiast friend, it had never occurred to me to be anything out of the ordinary.
You would never expect the captain of the losing team in the Champions League Final to take the stand and address the crowd, and you might place yourself in serious danger if you tried to force a microphone into the hand of a man who’s just lost a Heavyweight bout, so why is tennis so different?
Is tennis more sophisticated; more traditional; more civilized?
This, I cannot be sure of. What I do know is that this draconian demonstration can often be remembered long after the results have been wiped from the mental record.
Aside from having to congratulate the victor, thank the tournament organizers, the sponsors, umpires, ball boys and of course, the fans, tennis players are increasingly using this platform to express emotion and connect with the people.
However, this has not always been the case.
Back in the 1980″Â²s John McEnroe broke protocol by walking off the court to a cacophony of boos during Lendl’s victory speech at the French Open.
Four years later on the same court, Frenchman Henri Leconte received similar boos from the crowd when he tried to break down the technicalities of why he lost to Mats Wilander in the final.
These days, tears are the common order of business, and never more so than in the infamous 2009 Australian Open final when Roger Federer broke down after losing to Rafael Nadal, the likes of which the tennis world hadn’t seen since Jana Novotna in the 1990″Â²s.
The fear that this was to mark the end of the Federer-era proved unjust. Over the next year Roger would get the opportunity to hear some of the best runner-up speeches of all time first-hand.
But now, the frustration at the continuing domination of the great Swiss was starting to become comical, and this was being reflected in the speeches of the men falling by the waste-side.
After the 2009 French Open final, having lost to Roger in straight sets, Robin Soderling joked that
“nobody beats Robin Soderling 13 times in a row.”
Not so jovially, a few weeks later at Wimbledon, Andy Roddick called out
“You’ve won five times!”
in response to Federer’s insertions that he knew how Andy was feeling.
The next year, perhaps the humblest of speeches was uttered by a man known for anything but humility, when Andy Murray proclaimed,
“I can cry like Roger. It’s just a shame I can’t play like him.”
A statement which probably helped the Scot earn more fans than he had done over his entire career.
So is this tradition good for the game?
When you consider that these speeches often make headlines themselves, surely the more story-lines you can produce to promote the game, the better.
Professional tennis is competing with a multitude of sports for TV revenue, sponsorship and ticket sales, so the more connected fans feel to the players, the better.
Seeing a few tears or a little humility helps show that these guys are people too. A fact few professional athletes are afforded.
So, as a tradition, it is bizarre and as a requisite, it is brutal, but for the game, it is beneficial.