Sporting Heartbreak

As a sport lover, one of the questions I get asked most often is ‘Why do you like sport?  What’s so great about watching a load of people running around indulging in an ultimately pointless and futile activity?’  All right, they might not use quite so many words, but the tone used often implies them.  It’s an interesting question – there are many things that make sport, both the playing and the watching, utterly marvellous, and it is usually very difficult to elucidate these when put on the spot in that way.

Don’t worry, this particular article isn’t going to be chock-full of pseudo-intellectual bollocks on the meaning of sport; it will still be dripping with pseudo-intellectual bollocks of course, but on a slightly different subject.  One of the things that I find wonderful about sport is that it causes the participant or watcher to feel some pretty strong and intense emotions, but via a medium that ultimately doesn’t matter.  So the sight of your team scoring a goal causes elation and excitement, but fleetingly, and if they didn’t score at that particular moment, you wouldn’t miss the brief high.  However, sport can also cause distress, sadness, and occasionally real heartbreak.  In this article I would like to detail some of sport’s most heartbreaking moments.

Before starting, I should acknowledge the debt the format of this article owes to The Guardian’s excellent Joy of Six series – if you have a few hours to spare, look up the back catalogue online; one of life’s most enjoyable ways to waste time.  As the old saying goes – if you can’t beat ‘em, steal ‘eir idea and pass it off as your own.


1. Andy Roddick v Roger Federer, Wimbledon Final 2009

Recent Wimbledon finals have seen plenty of outpourings of emotion, whether it be in victory, such as Pat Cash’s perilous ascent up to his family in the players’ box in 1987 (a move now seemingly de rigeur for any champion), Goran Ivanisevic’s touching incredulity after his victory as a wild-card in 2001, and, dare we say it, Andy Murray’s relief this year, or in defeat, most famously Jana Novotna’s world collapsing in 1993, but also including Rafael Nadal in 2006, Andy Murray again, last year, and Sabine Lisicki this year.  However, for me Roddick’s loss to Federer in 2009 was the most heartbreaking precisely because he didn’t break down in floods of tears afterwards.

Men’s tennis in the United States is, while not in a parlous state, nowhere near as strong as it was in the 80s and 90s, where American men would routinely contest Grand Slam finals, often against each other.  There seemed to be an endless production line of world-class players from Ashe, Connors and McEnroe to Chang, Courier, Agassi and Sampras, and when Andy Roddick first came onto the scene, it was assumed he would be the next in that line.  Since then, despite the likes of Jan-Michael Gambill, Robby Ginepri, James Blake, John Isner and Mardy Fish (one of sport’s greatest names), Roddick is the only American player who has consistently been in the top 10, top 5 even.  He, like Lleyton Hewitt, straddled the era between Sampras/Agassi and Federer/Nadal, and therefore was at his peak ranking-wise at a young age.

He was clearly an excellent player, although, if not an enfant terrible, at least an enfant assez mal, prone to on-court outbursts and racket throwing.  His serve was his main weapon, but he also had an excellent forehand, and his backhand improved as he got older.  What he lacked in comparison with the greats was tactical nous, and the ability to mix up his play.  However, he won a Grand Slam, the 2003 US Open, and before 2009 had reached three other finals, Wimbledon in 2004 and 2005, and the US Open in 2006, each time losing to Federer.

Federer in 2009 was a player just starting to wane.  Defeats to Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final and the 2009 Australian Open final (the latter loss prompting a biblical outpouring of tears) had dented his aura somewhat, but with Nadal incapacitated by knee trouble, he won the French Open in May 2009 to complete a career Grand Slam, and also move level with Pete Sampras on 14 Grand Slams.  He was clearly the player to beat at SW19, and he moved through the rounds serenely, losing only one set before the final.  Roddick had come through a titanic 5-set quarter-final against Lleyton Hewitt, before turning Pete Sampras to Andy Murray’s Tim Henman in the semi-final and sending yet another year’s worth of British tennis fans home disappointed.  He was clearly playing well, and serving excellently, but there were doubts as to whether he could seriously challenge Federer, whom he had never beaten in a Grand Slam.

Everything was set up for Federer to win his record-breaking 15th Grand Slam.  It was at Wimbledon, his favourite venue.  Past legends Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver were in attendance, while Pete Sampras turned up halfway through to much fanfare, his first visit to Wimbledon since 2002.  But Roddick would not stick to the script.  He played the match of his life, and it was all Federer could do to hang on.  Most importantly Roddick served out of his skin, barely giving his opponent a sniff.  As a result Federer was always under pressure when serving himself, although with typical insouciance he usually brushed it aside.

In terms of pure tennis it wasn’t a particularly good game, being effectively a serve competition.  Roddick broke twice to win two sets, while Federer won two on a tie-break.  The final set was particularly attritional, but Federer managed to cling on to his serve on every occasion, and just waited for his chance.  Finally, after 37 consecutive holds of serve (a consistency which is frankly astonishing) Roddick was broken in the final game of the match, losing 16-14 in the fifth.

It is in Roddick’s response to defeat that the real heartbreak lies.  For him to break down and bawl his eyes out would have been a perfectly reasonable course of action.  He had played probably as well as it was possible to play in a match against a man who he would beat only three times in his career, at the final of tennis’ most prestigious tournament, one which he had been told from a young age was the most likely for him to win, and yet he had still lost.  It must have been crushing.  He must have felt conflicting emotions, proud at himself for having played absolutely to his potential, but at the same time utterly deflated.  Here was a man who needed an outlet for these emotions.  As the microphone-toting Sue Barker approached for the on-court post-match interview you felt sure that the waterworks were imminent.

Instead Roddick gave an interview of quite staggering magnanimity.  He praised Federer for his performance, he thanked the crowd, he even made a joke.  But all the while, you could see the devastation lurking just below the surface.  From the moment he was introduced to the crowd as runner-up and received a tumultuous ovation, to the moment he walked off the court Roddick was struggling to keep his emotions to himself.  As any actor will tell you, it touches people so much more if they can see you trying to supress the fact you are upset, rather than just crying straight out.  We have all been in situations where we know we shouldn’t cry, but just can’t help it, and so can empathise when we see it in others.  That Roddick managed to get through that presentation ceremony and interview with barely a tear is to his immense credit.  No-one would have been surprised had he broken down – in fact most may have expected it – but his refusal to do so makes this defeat of his far more heartbreaking.  This game should have been all about Federer breaking Sampras’ record, but, even to a Wimbledon crowd that is perennially pro-Federer, Roddick’s conduct made it more about him. – watch it here, and compare Roddick’s speech to Federer’s egocentric crassness.

2. Felipe Massa 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix

The thing about sport is that it’s a competition, therefore at the end there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser.  That may sound like stating the bleeding obvious, but bear with me.  As a youngster playing sport, you are often fobbed off with platitudes after defeat such as ‘you were all winners out there’ and ‘it’s not the winning, but the taking part.’  This may indeed be true at the level of junior or social sport, but at the highest level, winning is everything, not just to assuage the competitive instinct, but also because defeat may be the difference between getting a playing contract for the next year, or indeed a large amount of prize money.  So it is of little consolation to the elite sportsperson to lose a hugely memorable contest.

The climax to the 2008 Formula One season was famously one of the most dramatic moments in any sport.  The denouement was such that the writers of Happy Days would have dismissed it as fanciful, and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, would have cast it firmly into the Not section.  Coming into the final race of the season, Lewis Hamilton had 94 points and Felipe Massa had 87.  Both drivers had won 5 races, and the permutations were thus: if Hamilton finished 5th or higher, then the 4 points he would gain would be enough to win the title, wherever Massa were to finish; if Massa won, and Hamilton finished lower than 5th, then Massa would be World Champion; if Massa finished second and Hamilton finished out of the points, then Massa would be champion; if Massa finished second and Hamilton eighth, then everyone who tried to work out the mathematics of it all would spontaneously combust because of its complexity, and the championship declared null and void.  I made that last bit up, mainly because I’m not sure what would have happened.  Arm wrestle maybe?

As with Federer above, it seemed as though all was perfectly set up for Massa to triumph.  The script had been written.  It was his home Grand Prix, Hamilton had choked from a similar position the season before, and two races previously a controversial Japanese Grand Prix had involved a collision between the two title rivals that caused Hamilton to rejoin at the back of the field from where he was unable to conjure up a points finish.  Would the two points Massa gained that day prove vital?

The race was an exciting one, with intermittent rain causing all sorts of tyre changes.  With 8 laps remaining, Massa was leading, but Hamilton was in a fairly comfortable fourth position.  Then it started to rain.  All the leaders came into the pits to change from dry to intermediate tyres, with one exception, the Toyota of Timo Glock.  When the order had re-settled after the pit-stop flurry, Hamilton found himself in 5th position, still ahead in the Championship, but with Sebastian Vettel, then merely an annoyingly precocious German, up his chuff.  Struggling for grip, and hampered by back-markers, Hamilton ran wide with two laps remaining, allowing Vettel through, and seemingly once again coughing up his Championship chances.  He chased Vettel for two laps, but couldn’t get close enough to even attempt a pass, and that, you thought, was that.

But remember Timo Glock?  The man who had decided not to change his tyres?  He was now in fourth place, but struggling badly on an increasingly wet track on slick tyres, his lap times dropping furiously.  On the final corner of the final lap, Vettel and Hamilton caught him and passed him, thrusting the Englishman up to 5th position, and making him World Champion.  In the Ferrari garage the mechanics and the Massa family celebrated, unaware of this last minute pass, before someone tells them the bad news.  The look on the faces of Massa’s father and brother as they realise what has happened is heartbreaking.  It is almost impossible to believe a countenance can change from elation to disbelief to devastation in such a short space of time.  That the entire season should come down to the final corner of the final race is incredible, but for Massa the fact that he played his part in such an exhilarating finish was of no consolation.

In hindsight it is even more heartbreaking.  Massa was gracious in defeat, saying ‘I know how to lose and I know how to win and as I said before it is another day of my life from which I am going to learn a lot,’ and intimating that he was looking forward to challenging for the title again, but this was his best chance.  A year later he suffered a near-fatal injury at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and hasn’t been the same driver since. – watch the final laps here.

3. Derek Redmond, 400m semi-final, Barcelona 1992

Why do we empathise with sportsmen and women when they break down in public?  It’s not as if we can put ourselves precisely in their situation.  99.9% (a conservative estimate) of people watching an elite sporting event will never come anywhere near to experiencing what a sportsperson does – performing, after years of hard work, sacrifice and practice, in front of a vast audience, knowing that every action you take will be scrutinised, over-analysed and dissected until the cows have returned to their domiciles.  We can recognise, however, the pain of failing to attain something we desperately want, and when that failure comes because of something arguably out of your control, the distress is intensified.  Derek Redmond’s famous breakdown at the Barcelona Olympics contains this form of heartbreak, along with oh so much more.

Redmond was a genuinely high-class athlete, although not a world-class one.  He held the British record at 400 metres twice, and was part of the team that won the 4x400m relay at the 1991 World Championship (involving a goose-pimple-inducing final lap from Kriss Akabusi).  He was, however, injury-prone; he had missed the previous Olympics thanks to achilles-knack, and had undergone 8 operations during his career by the time he arrived in Barcelona.

His performances in the early rounds suggested Redmond was now in the form of his life.  Nearly 27, perhaps his body had matured enough to withstand the rigours of international athletics.  He breezed through the first round, setting the fastest time of all the qualifiers, and then won his quarter-final with ease.  He was expected to have no trouble qualifying for the final, before, hopefully, bothering the medal positions in the final.

Looking relaxed before the race, Redmond started well, running smoothly and easily, and looked to be in a good position, before, around halfway through the race, he clutched his right hamstring and came to a very abrupt halt.  This is a mildly heartbreaking scenario in itself; injury-prone athlete, seemingly recovered and performing at the peak of his ability, is let down by his body again at a crucial stage.  We’ll call this your common, or garden, sporting heartbreak.  A few moments later, we see the heartbreak-o-meter ramped up to level 3, as Redmond decides that, despite being practically lame, he wishes to finish the race and starts hobbling around the track towards the finish line.  What is interesting to notice is that he still stays in his lane as he slowly progresses, as if his muscle memory is preventing him from straying out of lane and risking disqualification.  Redmond said that his motivation for completing the race at this point was that, in his addled state he believed that he could still catch the other runners, and by finishing could still potentially fulfil his dream and reach the final.

As he rounds the bend, with pain and distress etched on his face, a figure emerges from the crowd, fighting off the (rather flimsy) attentions of the security guards, and approaches Redmond.  It turns out to be his father and mentor, dressed rather comically in blue shorts, a large white Nike cap, and a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Have you hugged your foot today?’  The heartbreak-o-meter goes up to 11 before exploding in a billow of smoke, as Redmond, becoming aware of his father by his side breaks down completely, collapsing onto his shoulder and sobbing uncontrollably.  They cross the line together, Redmond absolutely broken while his father, remarkably calmly given the circumstances, shoos away any official who dares to approach.  The crowd, recognising a seminal moment with far more perception than said officials, cheer themselves hoarse as Redmond Sr leads his emotional wreck of a son off the track, to somewhere where he can grieve more privately.

The footage of this incident has been replayed countless times, and yet it never fails to move.  There is so much to it, the emotion as multi-layered as an onion.  The advent of Redmond’s father is where the heartbreak becomes too much to bear, as we see a fully grown man, a top-class athlete, revert to being a small child, seeking comfort and solace in the arms of a parent.  It’s something I’m sure many of us have wished we could do when times get tough.  They say that there is no love that can surpass that of a parent for a child, and Redmond Sr (enough shilly-shallying, he has a name, so let’s use it.  He’s called Jim.) acts in a beautifully caring way.  He instinctively knows what to do – he at first joins his son, just offering his presence if it is required; next he comforts his son, all the while continuing to help his towards his goal, the finish line; and finally he protects his son from the attentions of the green-jacketed officials.  There are tens of thousands of people in the stadium.  There are hundreds of millions watching on television, but for Jim and Derek Redmond there are only two people present, a caring father comforting his devastated son.  For me, this is the most moving occurence I have ever seen in sport.

Sadly the only footage on YouTube is of montages set to vomit-inducingly saccharine music, but this video is the closest I could find to experiencing the event as it happened.  I challenge you not to cry.

4. Simon Shaw, Lions v South Africa 2nd Test, 2009

Any regular readers of this blog (stop sniggering at the back there – it could happen) will know that I have a bit of a thing for the British and Irish Lions.  It’s wonderful how a scratch team (of admittedly extremely good players) can, after a handful of training sessions, mix it against one of the top three international teams in world rugby (we’ll forget about the 2005 tour to New Zealand for the moment).  Most rugby players share the same love of the concept of the Lions, and for many the ultimate dream, and the ultimate accolade is to pull on the famous red jersey.

In 2009 Simon Shaw was approaching 36 years of age.  He had played top-flight rugby for nearly twenty years, international rugby for thirteen, had toured with the Lions in 1997 and 2005, and was generally regarded as one of the hardest men in the game.  His call-up to the Lions squad was unexpected and fully deserved – he was tough, fit, brimming with experience, a huge presence in the set-piece and, above all, a leader and winner.  Although definitely not a favourite for a starting place in the Test team, his presence on tour was expected to be a bonus, and he certainly wouldn’t shy away from any physical challenge.

To be honest the 2009 Lions tour is one of sport’s ‘what ifs…?’  What if Ugo Monye could keep hold of a rugby ball?  What if Adam Jones had started the first test?  What if the referee had had the stones to send Schalk Burger off in the first minute of the second test?  What if none of Jamie Roberts, Brian O’Driscoll and Adam Jones had got injured in the second test?  What if Ronan O’Gara’s parents had persuaded him a rugby career was a terrible idea?  The Lions should have won the first test, choked in the second test, and won the third at a canter when it didn’t matter.  Like the team that toured Australia in 2001, they played some mind-blowing rugby, and still managed to find a way to lose.

After losing the first test, despite threatening to complete one of sport’s all-time great comebacks, the Lions made a few (some enforced) changes to their team, including replacing the rangy athletic Alun Wyn Jones with Shaw, who partnered Paul O’Connell in what is scientifically proven to be the most gnarled second row pairing of all time.  The game was a belter.  Stephen Jones, the Sunday Times Rugby Correspondant, and generally held as the authority on rugby in these isles (when he’s not being unreasonably patriotic about Wales) rates it as the greatest test he’s ever seen.  Frankly you could write a Tolstoy-esque tome on the match.  Suffice to say South Africa won the game 28-25, with a last minute penalty from inside his own half by Morne Steyn, thus taking an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.  The Lions, and their fans, were devastated.

Out of all the team sports, rugby is probably the hardest to shine in as an individual.  All 15 players need to contribute, and much of the most valuable work is unseen, or at least unheralded.  However, in this game Simon Shaw was demonstrably magnificent.  He won line-out ball; he tackled non-stop; he was omni-present at the breakdown; he was prominent in the loose, carrying ball, making breaks, offloading with a hitherto unsuspected dexterity.  In short he, like Roddick, played the game of his life, and still lost.

To paraphrase The Cure, rugby players don’t cry; especially not hard bastard forwards.  As man of the match, Shaw was interviewed afterwards, and from the very beginning you can see the pain in his face.  His answers are delivered in a flat, tired voice, but you can see he is trying to provide as much good humour as is possible, a thoroughly decent bloke doing his best to help out the interviewer who seems to understand that this is a pretty thankless task for both of them.  Towards the end of the interview, the interviewer (not sure who he is, sorry) suddenly gushes out a torrent of praise for Shaw, telling him that he’s never seen him play so well in all his career, and asking how it felt finally, at the age of 36 on his third tour, to play for the Lions in a test match.  Not many of us are comfortable with receiving such praise that directly, especially not when we are feeling as distraught as Shaw was then.  You can see the tears start to well up in his face as he searches for a way to reply that won’t unleash the waterworks, eventually coming up with the pathetic (in its original sense) ‘I would’ve liked to have won today,’ like the good team player he is.  He did, however, manage to keep the tears in, thus preventing him from being banished from the rugby forwards’ union.

Here’s the interview in full

5 & 6 Darren Clarke, Ryder Cup, 2006 and Matthias Steiner, Beijing Olympics, 2008

In a sense, these two examples don’t belong here.  While the previous stories have been of heartbreaking moments occurring because of sport, these two are of heartbreak within a sporting context.  Yet because they happened within a sporting context, and both within contexts where the stakes were so high, they do belong.

Let’s begin with Clarke.  A popular player, famous for always having a cigar on the go, he seemed, along with the similarly rotund Colin Montgomorie, to be destined to finish his career as an unfulfilled talent.  A smooth backswing led to consistency off the tee, but he was let down around the green somewhat, and, despite regularly bothering the leaderboard at major championships, had never been able to make the step up from very good to great.  In the Ryder Cup, however he was a different proposition, especially in the fourballs, where he could afford to play the risky shot that you often cannot when playing just for yourself.  A final record of played 20, won 10, halved 3 is excellent.

In 2004 Clarke’s life and that of his family changed forever, when his wife, Heather, was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, a particularly devastating blow as she had come through primary breast cancer in 2001.  Over the next couple of years he played little golf, nursing Heather through the illness until, in August 2006, she died.

Six weeks later, at the K Club in County Kildare, the Ryder Cup started.  Given his partial withdrawal from golf over the previous two years, Clarke did not qualify to be on the Europe team automatically, but the captain, Ian Woosnam, had said that if Clarke was ready, he would be one of his wildcard picks.  Presumably needing the catharsis, Clarke decided to play and, supported by his teammates, including his very close friends Paul McGinlay and Lee Westwood, won all three of his matches as Europe walloped the Americans 18 ½ points to 9 ½.  The wall of sound that greeted him as he stepped up to the first tee in his first match was hair-raising, a reception he received throughout the tournament.  As he knocked it his putt to seal a 3&2 win over Zach Johnson in the singles, the crowd on the 16th gave him a thundering prolonged ovation, reducing Clarke, many of the other players, and probably most of the crowd to tears.  When asked what he felt in the moments after that putt had gone in, he replied ‘emotions that I hope you never have to feel.’

The story of Matthias Steiner is similar in that it involves the death of a spouse and the use of sport to help in the grieving process.  However, there is much more to it than that.

Steiner is a heavyweight weightlifter born in Vienna.  Starting in the under 105kg category, he competed internationally for Austria for several years, finishing 7th at the 2004 Olympic Games.  However, things went sour at the 2005 European Championships – Steiner had decided that the efforts to keep his weight under 105kg was too much, and so competed in the over 105kg category for the first time.  After disagreeing with his coach over how much he should attempt for his first lift, he proceeded to fail to complete all three of his lifts, with the national federation accusing him of having deliberately failed his final one.  Steiner got in a huff and vowed never to represent Austria again in international competition.

Luckily, this didn’t mean the end of his international ambitions – earlier that year he had married a German girl named Susann (they met due to some mildly stalker-ish behaviour on her part – after seeing Steiner on TV, she pestered Eurosport with e-mails until they finally gave her his contact details, but we won’t dwell on that).  As a result, he could qualify to represent Germany, which would mean three years of non-competition in any international event.  He would be eligible to compete again in 2008, which just happened to be Olympic year.

In his three years out, Steiner concentrated hard on bulking up, ready to be able to compete in the over 105kg category.  However, in the summer of 2007, Susann died in a car accident.  Steiner was, as you might imagine, devastated, stopped training and lost 8kg, quite a significant amount if you’re lifting more than twice your own body weight.  Eventually, using Susann’s memory as an incentive, he started training again, getting himself in peak condition as the 2008 season started.

An overall silver at the European Championships proved that he had used his time away from competition well, and, with the giant Iranian world record holder Hossein Rezazadeh retiring just before the Olympics, there was no obvious favourite.  To cut a long story short, big blokes lifted implausible amounts of metal one after another, until eventually it came to the final lift in the competition.  Steiner, in the clean and jerk, would have to lift 258kg, 10kg more than he had never managed before, to win the gold medal.

There could only be one outcome, I suppose.  Steiner steps up, looking incredibly determined, but also clearly struggling emotionally.  He composes himself somewhat, bends down to grab the weight, and lifts.  Somehow, from somewhere, he finds the ability to lift the bar first to his shoulders and then above his head, his eyes almost popping out of his face with the effort.  As he slams the bar down the realisation kicks in.  He lets out a scary animal-like roar, clutches momentarily at his chest, and then goes beserk, totally unsure of how to celebrate.  He jumps up and down; he rips off his outer vest; he hugs; he kisses the floor; he waves to the crowd, all accompanied by shouts of who knows what emotion that seem to come from deep down in his gut.  Knowing what has occurred before, you cannot fail to be moved by the release of it all, watching this man who has lived the last year under the most extreme emotional pressure, who is only able to compete here because of someone who cannot be with him to share his joy.  To top it all off, Steiner holds a photo of his wife on the podium as he receives his medal, before sobbing – not crying, not weeping, but sobbing – through the national anthem.  Heartbreak can occur in sporting victory, as well as defeat.

Slim YouTube pickings on these, but for Steiner, and (briefly, at around 2mins 30 – make sure you fast forward through the nauseating spectacle of the USA winning at Brookline in 1999, wearing those t-shirts) for Clarke.




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