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Mark Of A Champion: A Look at Roger Federer and Phil Hellmuth

July 9, 2011

Roger Federer held a two set to love lead over his opponent. His opponent faced a monumental uphill battle; not only had no one come back from 2-0 down against Federer before, he was on the ugly side of a 4-1 head to head. Federer was the more accomplished player with six Wimbledon titles and a total 16 Grand Slams to his opponent’s zero. All he didn’t have was entry into 2011’s Wimbledon semi-final, but with Jo Wilfried Tsonga on the ropes, that was inevitable.

Just over a week later, on another continent playing a different game, Phil Hellmuth was in a similar situation. Sitting in the dark light of the Rio casino, playing his final opponent, Hellmuth held a massive 17 million to 2.4 million chip lead. Hellmuth was vying for his twelfth bracelet – the poker equivalent of a Grand Slam – his opponent, his second. Hellmuth had the experience, the crowd, and a substantial lead. His victory would only take a few more hands.

They say that in sport, anything can happen. In men’s tennis, that theory rarely rings true. With the top three dominant in Grand Slams, majors often play out predictably. In Federer’s case, a two set to love lead was all but a done deal. Until that quarter-final match, he was unbeatable from that situation. Suddenly inspired, Tsonga outplayed Federer for the last three sets. The six time champion was forced to face one of the most inconceivable defeats of his career.

As for poker, anything really can happen. Luck plays its part, but at professional level it’s a small role. Unfortunately for some, in poker, even a small role can be game changing. Such as it was with Hellmuth. He held the tennis equivalent of match point three times, each time the cards betrayed him. The third set of ill-timed card delivered the fatal blow. Hellmuth was left staring blankly at the felt table while his opponent celebrated a comeback for the ages. It was Hellmuth’s third second placing this year, an unlikely feat in poker. For him, the disappointment must be unimaginable.

Both Federer and Hellmuth were gracious in defeat. Hellmuth, who must have felt truly robbed, walked out with his head high and tweeted his determination to win his twelfth. Federer praised Tsonga and expressed that he lost to the better player on the day, refusing to let journalists talk him down. Like Hellmuth, Federer swore he would be back.

It is a mentality that isn’t discussed often in sport – that is, the mental game away from the court. Commentators love to talk during a game about the strong minds of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova, about how they never give up, can always come back. Yet their ability to move on after a loss could be even more impressive than their lack of on-court dejection. Federer was in three French Open finals before he finally won it on his fourth attempt. To come back after defeat, time and time again, deserves more credit than we can give. After the Wimbledon final, in which Novak Djokovic beat Nadal, Nadal admitted his five straight losses to Djokovic bothered him, but said he’d go back to drawing board and try again. Sharapova must also feel bitterly disappointed after losing this year’s Wimbledon final, but she’ll pick herself up and come back fighting. It’s nothing she hasn’t done before.

To get back on the horse can’t be easy in tennis or poker, where the next tournament comes too quickly to allow grieving time. Andy Murray has struggled to come back quickly after Grand Slam defeats, as have Vera Zvonareva and Dinara Safina. Afterall, a letdown is surely normal.

Which is why Federer and Hellmuth are among the greats of their games. For in a few days time, Hellmuth will bring his all to poker’s biggest tournament. Federer will be back trying for number 17 in weeks. As with all champions, you’d be a fool to count them out.

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