Tennis Prose



Recovering From Grand Slam Final Defeats: When The Dream Doesn’t Come True

By Scoop Malinowski

As the fourth Grand Slam tournaments of 2023 begins today, let’s delve into an area that is rarely talked about in the world of professional tennis: the dark side of losing a major tournament final and the pain and suffering of the epic failure to make the lifelong dream come true.

It’s a delicate topic that is rarely talked about sincerely in detail, for obvious reasons, by Grand Slam finalists who fell just short of winning a Grand Slam title. Many elite tennis pros tend to rhetorically say they can shake off a heartbreaking Grand Slam final loss fairly quickly and then move on to the next event. But there is also ample evidence that this isn’t always true. Some players are haunted by crushing losses, sometimes for years and years.

Bjorn Borg’s first wife Mariana Simeonescu shared some insights recently on the Golden Age of Tennis Facebook page about the 1980 US Open final when Borg lost to John McEnroe in four sets. “That final was as intense as Wimbledon final … without a long tiebreak … it was the also the hardest moment of Bjorn’s tennis era. I was not able to give him any comfort, he was so disappointed … trying to hold his tears FOR many days.”

The 1980 US Open final loss to McEnroe was Borg’s third final loss in Flushing Meadows in three tries, the two previous setbacks were to Jimmy Connors in 1976 and 1978. At that point in time at US Open 1980, Borg had already won ten Grand Slam titles. His final Grand Slam title came at Roland Garros in 1981. Borg lost the finals of Wimbledon and US Open in 1981 both times to McEnroe. One can only speculate why the 1980 US Open final was especially emotionally devastating for Borg, as revealed by his former wife Mariana Simeonescu.

John McEnroe is still irritated today by his 1984 French Open final loss to Ivan Lendl, which he was leading by two sets to love. “It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat. Sometimes it still keeps me up nights. It’s even tough for me now to do the commentary at the French. I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match. Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.” 

McEnroe was leading Lendl 63 62 but then lost the following three sets 46 57 57. This was the closest McEnroe ever came to winning the French Open.

More recently, Novak Djokovic said he was able to move on from the Wimbledon five setter loss to Carlos Alcaraz and proved it did not weaken his spirit in the least as he avenged the Spaniard in the Cincinnati final in the epic three-hour and fifty minute marathon 57 76 76.

“It’s a tough one to swallow when you are so close,” Djokovic said after losing to the 20 year old 46 in the fifth set at Wimbledon. “I lost to the better player and I have to congratulate him and move on.”

You might think it was easier for Djokovic to bounce back from that loss, because he already has the security of having won 23 Grand Slam titles and over $150m in prize earnings.

Pete Sampras once told a WTA player he hit with at his home in Los Angeles a few years ago that he didn’t really get super nervous before a Grand Slam final but if he lost, it would sometimes bother him for about a month. The coach of the WTA player overheard these comments by Pete and told me about it at US Open 2019.

Roger Federer said, or claims, he is one to not let painful losses linger too long in his psyche. “One good thing about me is that I forget matches, even bad matches, very quickly. I get sad about not having played well but I don’t really get (upset). By the time I get back to the hotel, it’s completely forgotten and I’m fine.”

But one has to wonder if Roger still contemplates and regrets the 2019 Wimbledon final where he blew two championship points vs. Djokovic in the fifth set.

Amanda Anisimova did a Biofile interview with me last week in New York City at her Tribeca art show and for her most painful moment of her career, the American 21 year old mentioned her Roland Garros semifinal loss in 2019 to Ash Barty in three sets after winning the first set from 0-5 down and saving two set points in that sixth game. “I think the most painful was when I lost in the semis of Roland Garros, I cried my eyes out for the five hours after that. And I woke up with such puffy eyes and everyone was asking me, Why are you so upset? You just did so well. And I guess nobody would understand. But to me, when you have such a big opportunity – and I was winning – and like my dream is winning a Grand Slam – and I was so close. And losing really hurt. It really stung.”

But every player is different and how they cope with and overcome excruciating losses in the ultimate moments of the sport also varies.

“Tennis is a vicious sport.” – Martin Redlicki

“Tennis is a brutal sport no doubt, on every front.” – Justin Gimelstob

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