I often find myself fascinated by sports contests, especially when I see individual excellence. Let’s face it: with either tennis or golf, each player is basically “naked” out there, with the world watching each good shot and each bad one. There’s nowhere to hide.

But this weekend’s contests also proved that even champions can stumble and look as ordinary as the rankest amateur. Each of these three — all major champions in their own right — looked terribly weak at the outset of the final contest they were playing in.

Each was a favorite, but even favorites can falter. They can have bad days. They can come close and not win.

But each of these three — all of whom had TERRIBLE starts in their respective matches — ultimately prevailed.

Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.
Serena Williams

On Saturday, Serena Williams’ time came again. She was playing in the finals at Wimbledon, a hallowed venue for men’s and women’s tennis. She played against a very talented — but relatively unknown  — opponent and won. But in the early going, she was definitely not playing up to her abilities; I wasn’t even sure she’d win. And she did — and celebrated her “Serena Slam.”

And while I (and perhaps other watching) was thinking she’d fail, she began to rally. She began to look like the winner she is, point by point, game by game. She was tested (final score 6-4, 6-4) and ultimately was able to pull her game together as only she can.


I think luck falls on not just the brave
but also the ones who believe they belong there.

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic was also playing at Wimbledon, in the men’s final Sunday against  7-time winner Roger Federer. From the start, Federer looked dominant, and I really didn’t think Djokovic would win. But he did, in just four sets. It had seemed almost Federer’s destiny to become an 8-time Wimbledon champion; certainly many commentators were expecting him to ultimately prevail. But Djokovic gritted it out, and he is now #1, with his third Wimbledon title.

I never did say you can’t be a nice guy and win. I said that if I was playing third base and my mother rounded third with the winning run, I’d trip her up.   Leo Durocher

The John Deere Classic golf tournament — not a “major,” but still a tournament worth winning — was on its last day Sunday and “nice guy” Jordan Spieth looked wretched through the first 9 holes. He looked “flat,” which, after his 61 on Saturday (a truly remarkable score) was sad. I kept thinking he COULD win, but I wasn’t sure he WOULD win. I couldn’t see the magic happening.

But while a total unknown — 46-year-old Tom Gillis, who had never won (still hasn’t)  on the PGA tour — was climbing up the leader board and delighting the commentators and the crowds, Jordan Spieth finally started finding that magic. They ended tied, and played just two holes of sudden death, with Tom Gillis plunking his second shot into the water. What a sad ending for him! And so Jordon Spieth notched another “win,” his fourth this year.

Oh ye (me) of little faith!

So what separates the great ones from the ordinary ones?

1.  They measure their success one shot at a time. That’s so much easier to say or write than to live, but it works. THIS shot is important. Right now, I need to focus on THIS shot. I watched it happen all weekend with all three players. Did they get upset over a bad shot? Yes. But you could see them push that anger down or reroute the energy in it towards their next shot.

2.  They play their own game. Others may be doing better, but they still play the game they know can give them a winning edge. They stay in their routine. They use their own winning tactics.

3.  They keep on keepin’ on. There’s no quit in their vocabulary. They grind away — if they must — believing the tide will turn in their favor because they know they have won and they can win. And everyone says the first win is the toughest mentally; until you win, you’re often not sure you can.

For me, it’s mesmerizing to watch that level of excellence play out on television. It’s a great reminder that while even the greats stumble, more often than not they find a way to win.

What do YOU do when you stumble? How do YOU overcome your missed shots? What lessons have YOU learned?