It simply amazes me how people 'create' pressure simply because of irrational thinking processes. And it is not only average Joes on reality TV. You have the tennis player that is talking about the semi-finals, the crunch match, the most important day because if (s)he can win that match - (s)he will be in the finals. And the media, the managers the sponsors all get into the act, so you can't just say it is a dumb sports person.
[As aside, my other little pet hate is commentators who always bemoan the fact that some team always makes a mistake on the last ball; e.g.: the 'the winger never gets the ball because the team seems to be dropping the ball on the last pass'. Duh. That is why it is called the last pass.]
Anyhow, in any competitive situation (sports or business) the ultimate or penultimate challenge is no different to the first challenge: If you lost in the first round you also don't get to go to the finals and win the trophy. If you lose in the final you also don't win the trophy. The first round match and the semi-final match are equal in impact as both result in the same thing.
The result is no different but we create more stress for ourselves because we artificially attach more importance to those results that are closest to the ultimate prize even though the effect of all matches are exactly the same.
Sticking with the tennis analogy, I must admit that some players have a healthy attitude: faced with a tough draw (say that have to play the No 1 seed in the first round) some players have been known to say (correctly) that 'if I want to win the tournament, I have to beat this guy, so it does not really matter when I play him.'
Why we create this pressure when we are in the moment, escapes me because it is not as if anyone can remember who came second at anything; so in the long run second is really no different to fourth or tenth.