THANKS to the agonisingly-tense Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, a long-neglected corner of garden scrub was finally tamed. Out in bucket loads came the ancient roots of buttercups and dandelions that have lived there undisturbed for generations. While the Swiss and the Serb slugged it out, and cheers and groans from the house next door reached me in the undergrowth, I tugged a straw hat over my ears, and found half an hour’s peace.

It was after the first set, which Federer lost in a tie-break, that I chickened out. You could call it cowardice, the reluctance to see the player I wanted to win, but suspected would not, brought low. Such was the fight Federer put up, however, that by the fourth set I had rediscovered my nerve, and was back on the sofa, strapped in safely to prevent me hitting the ceiling whenever he won a rally.

When Djokovic finally prevailed, the cameras politely kept off Federer for a few moments. Not that it would have made much difference. Unlike the French player who had sobbed uncontrollably after conceding the men’s doubles final, the Swiss maestro is made of sterner stuff. Of course being worsted must have been hard. The ferocity of the game spoke to how much each player wanted to win. As the football pundits like to say, this pair left nothing in the changing room, throwing their hearts and souls into combat, and playing through a level of exhaustion only marathon runners can fully comprehend.

In a previous age, a duel of this significance would have resulted in one contestant being carried, mortally wounded, off the field. From that perspective, Federer’s defeat – a silver salver and a substantial cheque – is still victory of a sort. In a gracious speech, he acknowledged Djokovic’s brilliance. The new Wimbledon champion was equally sporting, talking of the inspiration he took from Federer, not just for playing so well at 37, but throughout his remarkable career.

Whatever encouragement thirty-something athletes take from the Swiss’s astonishing performance, there is inspiration also in his acceptance of the result. To read and listen to sports coverage – indeed discussion of all competitive realms of life – such is the lionising of those who do well, defeat has become a dirty word. Yet without losers of the calibre of Federer, or Serena Williams, or so many other tennis and sporting giants, there would be no winners. Where’s the reward of winning if it comes so easily there was never any contest in the first place? You can only have a champion if he or she has had to do battle against a worthy rival. Why would the likes of Rafa Nadal or Williams spend so many hours practising, improving, and perfecting their game if the threat of being beaten was not ever-present?

The near hysteria of our culture when celebrating those who reach No. 1 seems predicated on ceaseless success. Organisers of children’s sports days who insist everyone is a winner, and nobody should ever be stigmatised as finishing last, are doubtless well-intentioned. Yet in the long run, don’t they do more harm than good? All of us know, from an astonishingly early age, that we are better at some things than others. We don’t expect to be first in everything – some of us don’t expect to be first in anything. From the offset, nature seems to train us to accept a hierarchy of ability. First-class cricketers are not necessarily so adept at maths or art or baking a sponge. Those who are not especially good at any subject often go on to show they are every bit as valuable to society as the whizz-kids, and sometimes a great deal more.

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To counteract the hype that goes with triumph, we must pay attention to its counterpart, and learn how to fail well. In whatever area you name, publicly falling short of a goal is something all of us will experience. Whether it’s not getting a job, or losing an election, getting on to a prize shortlist but tripping at the last hurdle, there is only room for one victor in every competitive situation. Since statistically we are likely to fall short more often than we win, we should be given guidance in how to cope. I don’t mean we should expect failure – though Presbyterianism offers a first-class DIY course in defeatism – but that we should be taught how to handle it. And by that I don’t mean denial.

Listening to sports figures, politicians, or business leaders finding positives even when they’ve been trounced, is almost a sport in itself. It seems the very thought of not being the best has been brainwashed out of all competitors lest it influence their performance. Surely, though, we need to embrace coming in second place, or lower, in a healthy way? Defeat is to victory what day is to night, but to live in perpetual sunshine is unsustainable and, frankly, unthinkable.

Phil Neville, coach of the England women’s football squad, was refreshingly unafraid to discuss the f-word. He did not want an open-top bus parade when the team returned home after coming fourth in the World Cup. That, he said, would be to celebrate failure. He now wants the team to focus on learning how to win. He’s absolutely right, yet one hopes that this process will include a dose of realism, a cushioning of expectations, that allows for coming up short without a crisis of self-belief or losing face.

Federer’s reactions after the final were a lesson in precisely that. He acknowledged that he and Djokovic had both had their chances to win, and he had blown his. Will those elusive championship points haunt him? How could they not? Yet while he will relive those moments, and wince at letting the trophy slip from his grasp, a sportsman of his calibre will have learned to be resilient. The number of grand slams top tennis players have under their belts is repeatedly trumpeted, but you’re never told how many they crashed out of. Matches that didn’t go to plan are airbrushed, as if fans don’t want to know about the bad days. Yet how unreal, and unhelpful, is that? Nobody likes losing, but handling it well is all part of what makes for greatness.