Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Mental rally set up winner

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There is nothing quite like a heroic winner as Andy Murray proved last week with his US Open victory.

So often the plucky loser, and sometimes not even plucky, Murray had all his demons expectantly waiting for yet another collapse at Flushing Meadows. Only poker players have known how to fold as well as Murray in the past and there he was, having squandered a two-set lead to begin the fifth with not only his career, but his sanity on the line.

Nearly all of his most loyal followers probably feared for him at two sets each. Who really believed, other than the man himself, that he was going to escape with the title he wanted; the title he needed?

Failure on the big stage is like compound interest - the more it happens, the more consuming negative thinking becomes. Losing almost becomes habitual - a sense of it being destiny pervades, something the All Blacks knew all about at World Cups way longer than they would care to remember now. Something the England football team still knows about at World Cups.

If Murray had thrown it away again, lost his fifth Grand Slam final, then he might just as well have packed up. That would have been it; Murray would have been forever doomed; forever plagued by self-doubt and mental gremlins.

His future would have been horrible had he wilted in the fifth set - a slow and possibly alcohol-fuelled journey to obscurity, where in 20 years he'd have been the shaggy-haired, bitter bloke in the corner, trying to convince men half his age he was once something special.

Obviously not quite on those terms, but he admitted as much after his epic victory over Novak Djokovic. And that's what makes his story so compelling - it took ferocious courage, concentration, belief, energy and skill to not only overcome Djokovic, but to overcome himself.

Pressure is the deal-breaker in all sport. Inevitably, it is mental strength that ultimately determines who is first and who is second. Occasionally, freaks like Usain Bolt come along who are so ludicrously well equipped physically, that they can probably afford to be a bit off their best on the day and still win.

But he's the exception. Analyse any big final of any code over just about any period and the conclusion will be unavoidable: the winners were the ones who handled the pressure the best.

Specifically, that means the winners were the ones who executed with the greatest accuracy; they were the ones who made the best decisions; the ones who stayed on task and process-focused rather than dwelling on the outcome.

It seems simple enough and yet we all know that it is anything but. Remember Greg Norman's infamous collapse at the Masters in 1996 when he blew a six-stroke lead? Or the mad Frenchman Jean van de Velde losing the plot entirely at Carnoustie in 1999 - needing only a double-bogey down the last to win the British Open - he took seven.

Or Jana Novotna at the 1993 Wimbledon final, 4-1 up in the third set and 40-15 ahead, she contrived to lose to Steffi Graf. Newcastle United had the 1995-96 English Premiership in their grasp when they reached mid-February 12 points ahead, only to hit reverse and be pipped by Manchester United.

The list could go on - and include a handful of All Black World Cup entries. It is because we know the capacity of the human brain to meltdown, to be paralysed by fear when it perceives to be under duress, that we can fully appreciate the depth of character Murray showed to win his first Grand Slam.

It is why there was such relief for the All Blacks last year for finally ridding themselves and the nation of 24 years of unwanted history.

It's one thing to win, another entirely to win when history is a massive burden; when defeat would be career-ending.

Too often we celebrate or overly praise at least, the brave loser.

That balance has to be redressed when victories like Murray's and the All Blacks' come along. The brave winner is the ultimate - the story we should tell our kids and, really, the story that matters most.

- Herald on Sunday

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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