To Djokovic, Mountaineers and the rest of the underdogs

40-Love. The world’s No. 1 player at his mercy. Poised to shock the tennis world.

Novak Djokovic entered Sunday’s showdown with tennis great Roger Federer as a tremendous underdog. Few gave Djokovic any chance of upsetting this generation’s brightest star, despite the fact that the 20-year-old Serbian had defeated the Swiss less than a month earlier and was seeded third. And then up a break at 6-5, he had his chance.

At 40-Love, the first set seemed Djokovic’s for the taking, especially since Federer had had little success against Djokovic’s serve in the match’s early stages.

Instead, Djokovic dumped backhands and double-faulted his way down the stretch. He acted as underdogs often do. He, like everyone watching in the stands and on TV, couldn’t believe that he was winning. Furthermore, he didn’t believe that he could win. And so, he didn’t.

The past weeks in the world of sports have been full of upsets and surprises. But Djokovic reminded fans everywhere of just how difficult it is to stun a heavy favorite. It requires a willingness to believe in oneself and one’s teammates, but not the press and other naysayers. It demands a certain mental fortitude and the ability to dream big and to believe the unimaginable.

In my never-ending search for lessons we can take from sports, this is yet another. While wrapped up in our world of good grades and extracurricular activities, we often fail to confront seemingly insurmountable challenges. As a Yale student, the challenges of day-to-day life are often distant. We, at least for these four years, have somehow been put in control of a destiny that has success written all over it. We are very lucky to be here and to have access to so many different opportunities.

But we could all probably learn from being the underdog. And I don’t mean walking into a test unprepared because you made some poor planning decisions and got stuck performing triage on your coursework. I mean confronting an opponent or a challenge that you will only defeat once in a hundred times. As we move away from the comfortable learning environment provided by our schools and into the adult world, we will begin to learn most frequently by being thrown into uncomfortable situations and managing to cope. We will face situations that seem totally overwhelming, daunting and perhaps even impossible.

But it’s not impossible to overcome an overpowering foe. Underdogs, even the least likely of them, do win. I need only point to two-time defending FSD (formerly 1-AA) national champions, Appalachian State, and their improbable victory over then-No. 5 Michigan. Make no mistake about it: The Mountaineers beat a team of better athletes on one of college football’s biggest stages. The cards were stacked in every way against them.

According to its coaching staff, its players and the Ann Arbor press, Michigan was unprepared for the contest. But the Wolverines had certainly prepared; they had practiced and drilled. What actually happened is that they were outworked both before and during the game. They committed far too many pre-snap penalties and failed to execute the most basic of special teams plays. And the biggest difference in this case was that Appalachian State had clearly committed itself to the belief that winning was possible.

And that’s the biggest hurdle of them all. It is far too easy to approach a challenge with the attitude that defeat is inevitable, that showing up is enough and that a good effort will render the experience worthwhile. All of this may be true. But the ability to hold onto an inkling of hope and to walk with an unjustified swagger can make a huge difference in the way a human being approaches life.

Many of Yale’s athletes confront situations like this at least once per season. The men’s soccer team played No. 10 Northwestern last Friday night and fell, 3-1. The women’s soccer team took on No. 6 North Carolina on Sunday and lost, 4-0. I cannot speak for the mindset of either team. But walking onto the field with one of the top 10 teams in the country certainly qualifies as a gut check. There must be doubt in your mind. And no matter how much your coach tells you that you can win, you must actually conceptualize it in order for it to happen.

We could all learn to practice this because I don’t believe it is natural. The primitive reaction to encountering an undefeatable foe is to run (and run fast). And while many of us project confidence, there is a difference between confidence and really believing in oneself and one’s own ability. We, as Yale students, have the capacity to learn and adapt. We know how to adjust to new situations. But those who will succeed the most are the ones who can actually believe what others might not even conceive. And that’s something that athletes must do fairly frequently.

Nicholas Thorne is a senior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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