After his record-setting victory over Patrick Rafter at Wimbledon on Sunday, Pete Sampras said, "We all choke."
Sampras was referring to the match's two decisive tiebreakers -- the first of which he lost after double-faulting twice, the second of which he won after Rafter made unforced errors. "This game is a matter of nerves," he said. "We were both feeling it. I lost my nerve in the first set. He lost his nerve 4-1 in the second breaker."
"We all choke"? "I lost my nerve"?
Was this a jock speaking in America in the year 2000?
These days, you're a lot more likely to see athletes taunting their opponents with the "choke" sign than admitting that they themselves are capable of choking. Mike Tyson, who said of Lennox Lewis, "I'm going to rip out his heart and feed it to him," modestly adding, "I want your heart. I want to eat your children," is an extreme case, but increasing numbers of athletes seem to favor public personas that have been modeled on Donald Trump, or maybe Werner Erhard. And why not? Projecting a general aura of macho invulnerability goes over big in the corporate world -- why shouldn't jocks follow suit?
In a hyperbolic, media-saturated age, when a relief pitcher's failure to throw a strike instantly becomes a collapse rivaling Satan's fall through outer darkness, showing weakness, or even admitting to it, is getting harder and harder for athletes to do. This is understandable, to a degree. Athletic achievement requires a spectacular degree of self-confidence. Great athletes can't allow even the possibility of failure to creep into their minds: Hamlet probably wouldn't have been any more successful as a quarterback than he was as a fencer. Moreover, the simple fact is that great athletes fail less than the rest of us: That's why they're great. Self-confidence, natural talent and achievement reinforce one another.
And, of course, that's one of the reasons we're drawn to sports: to watch people who have achieved a rare mastery of their craft and themselves. If we knew that every time Sampras tossed up the ball to serve, his concentration was going to waver, we wouldn't turn on the TV. We don't want to see athletes second-guessing themselves, dithering and suffering fits of the vapors: We get that at home. We need the universe of sports to be a parallel one, brighter and clearer than ours, filled with waving pennants instead of half-truths and smudged bus schedules, inhabited by people who have the sharp outlines and implacable assurance of characters in novels.
But what makes that universe truly compelling is that it really isn't different from ours at all. Athletes do what they do better than nonathletes can, but they're still human beings. They lose their nerve. They lose concentration. They succumb to fear.
By admitting this in such a matter-of-fact way, on the day that he established his credentials as one of the great champions, Sampras restored a measure of dignity, of humanity, to the increasingly plastic, victory-obsessed world of sports. In the end, Sampras was saying, victory cannot even be understood apart from defeat. It isn't that some of us choke: We all choke. It's a democracy of failure: Some of us may be riding in first class, but we're all bozos on this bus.
And the very fact that even the greatest athletes choke means that their achievements, far from diminishing our less spotlighted lives, illuminate the million human victories that go unnoticed every day. Just as it takes their deeds out of the realm of empty myth, it moves our own everyday feats, if we look at them the right way, onto a green field of the mind, a field that never fades.
So Sampras' 130-mile-an-hour serve kicking up chalk lights up the schoolteacher who stays after work to help a struggling student learn how to read. Joe Montana's off-leg, hand-in-his-face throw to that 2-foot square where only Dwight Clark could snatch the ball out of the air illuminates a mother stumbling out of bed at 4 a.m. to hand a crying child a teddy bear. Michael Jordan's soaring last-second shot spotlights the kid sax player who plays that Bird phrase over and over until he nails it.
"We all choke," Sampras said. Yes, we do -- and if we didn't, there would be no victories, or defeats, at all.