In tennis and in life, don't make excuses after the fact

For those of us who have been self-proclaimed conservatives for a long time, there is not a lot of ambivalence concerning our personal core values and ethics. Among our most important first premises are support for personal responsibility, avoiding dependence, and rejection complaining and whining when things don't go our way as a result of our personal weaknesses.

One of the most difficult examples concerning one of these precepts is the question of whether one should make excuses to explain a failure. The conservative reflex is to eschew such rhetorical alibis.

Say I am in a debate, and it's clear that my opponent got the better of me. I should not say, "I was up late last night" or "I lost some of my best evidence en route to the contest." I should just accept the fact that he or she beat me, while not conceding that on substance I was incorrect (a "no-excuses" policy does not mean you're wrong in this case, just that your opponent argued/defended his/her position better than you). Furthermore, it is bad sportsmanship to imply that your opponent is unworthy and could not have won but for your atypically bad performance.

But what if there are historical demands for your accounting truthfully for your bad performance? What if your greatness at the matter in question needs to be accurately accessed for the annals of a great sport?

Last week, for the first time in eight years, Roger Federer lost an opportunity to compete on Centre Court at Wimbledon for the finals. He lost to Czech Tomas Berdych decisively, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, and 6-4.

I can tell you that in tennis — my sport for 50 years — when you lose to an opponent you should have soundly defeated, it is psychologically difficult (to say the least) not to say why that inferior chap won, especially if there is a clear reason beyond your control.

But if you do, not only do you seem petty, but you provide an opportunity for your opponent to depict you as ... as ... as a weak, gutless, progressive kind of guy.

And that's what ensued when Mr. Federer attributed his losing to injury, the first mention of which occurred after the Berdych match: "I couldn't play the way I wanted to play ... I am struggling with a little bit of a back and a leg issue."

Mr. Berdych's reaction to Mr. Federer's explanation for losing was the nuclear option: "I don't know if he is just looking for some excuses after the match or something like that ... I think he was 100 percent."

There is some reason to believe Mr. Federer's claim, as he has lost two consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals, and his play has been inconsistent (for him) very recently.

So what should Mr. Federer have done: sucked it up and congratulated Mr. Berdych on a great victory, or explained why Mr. Federer wasn't Mr. Federer?

One conservative's verdict: There is nothing wrong (although this puts you at a competitive disadvantage) with publicly indicating physical problems before a tournament or match and then letting observers and writers draw their own conclusions at the results.

Otherwise, your excuse gratuitously demeans your opponent, even if he's not an understanding guy.

After all, "understanding guys" tend to be namby-pamby wusses.

Richard E. Vatz is a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University. His e-mail is A version of this article originally appeared on the blog Red Maryland.