You know you have quite an odd day in sports where a 59-59 final set is a bit of an afterthought—and then, as it dawned on everyone, “Oh wait, it’s 35-35 in the fifth set of a tennis match—shouldn’t we be watching this?” that we finally did. What a giddy sports day.
If there’s anything—any wonderful thing—you can take from the games in of themselves, it must be this: competitive spirit is in persevering despite missed opportunities. The scoreline might have read 1-0, USA-Algeria, but the difference in competitiveness and of wanting to win was immense. Algeria played a cynical game for no clear purpose whatsoever—a tie won them nothing. And yet they played for that with sporadic, almost halfhearted attempts at goal (after their golden chance at roughly the sixth minute). The dude with the blond hair, Ziani, who continually launched long shots—why don’t you try something else, buddy? Or don’t, actually; your poor play helps us. The game played by the Algerians was almost competitive nihilism: they weren’t playing for anything besides spoiling someone else’s day. And that, combined with some bad luck and some bad finishing, was almost enough. Until it wasn’t enough, thank god.
The Isner-Mahut match was more of a piece of one of those matches you’d like to never end (and perhaps it never will). The will to win became the will to survive by the time it carried into near-darkness. And that’s just beautiful of its own accord.
There’s an obsession with winners that sometimes overlooks the narrative. In truth, neither the winner of the Mahut match nor the U.S. men’s national soccer team is likely to win their competitions. Whether for luck or for skill, we can’t all be winners. What is much more achievable, but turns out to be a skill all its own, is playing with character.