Sunday 5 June 2011

Roland Garros: The not-so-short story of how I ended up rooting for MuFeDalOvic. Yes really.


I generally get very prickly at having to hear long, drawn-out justifications from people of why they choose to root for a particular player. Who you choose to root for (or against) is your own business and is based largely on primal instinct – lengthy, breathless justifications spectacularly miss the point. Root for Daniel Koellerer if you should be so inclined – I simply couldn’t care any less.

But what really offends me is the (unsubtle) implication that their particular brand of loyalty to their player is morally superior to anything you can conjure up for the same or any other player – that they’re somehow more in tune with its vagaries  than you can ever hope to be – a consequence, presumably, of  their inherent superiority in this and every other sphere. [If you say so deary]

For this and other reasons, I prefer not to talk explicitly about my loyalties  – they should be obvious to regular readers in any case.

Many people, however, find it very strange when they learn that I’m a fan of Rafa, Fed, Nole AND Murray.  Its the only reliable way I know of getting someone to snort-choke their drink through their nose – a particularly cruel and unusual party trick.


How very unearthly. Rafa and Fed at the same time?? *shiver* FED AND NOLE AT THE SAME TIME??  *barf* [At this point they’re practically reeling in repugnance and consider me something of a dilettante, beyond contempt itself.]

I can understand that many (perhaps most) prefer living in a world governed by mutual exclusivity – the boundaries are clear, you know exactly how to behave, who to offend, who to befriend, and I can certainly imagine it being less complicated  all round (though I’m sure committed fans would disagree). That’s fine, but my relationship with tennis is rather different. I don’t say this with any type of pride – if anything, its always been this way. And at times it feels somewhat masochistic.

I started out, back in 2003, rooting for Roger Federer. Can’t say this was my first love (Goran) and it may not, in any case, have been this way if there was someone as dominant around at the same time (an Agassi to Sampras for example). But there wasn’t – and I couldn’t, in any case, conceive of anyone playing tennis that way. I admired his game for all the same reasons any avid FedFan will tell you – the movement, the silky, deceptively powerful groundstrokes, the infamous Foster Wallace “religious experiences” yadayada…

To this day, I can remember almost breaking out in a rash when Andy Roddick went a set up in the early stages of his 2004 Wimbledon title defence – they only went four sets as it turned out, but it felt more like nine.


As the years rolled by, Rafa broke on to the scene. Like most, I was utterly captivated, and admired what he did on clay,  preferring still to remain steadfast in Camp Swiss Big Cheese – even though Rafa had  exposed (for the first time) the only vulnerability in the most complete game I’d ever seen.

And so it remained until the end of 2007 – the most dominant year in Feds career. Which is when things got complicated…..

Fed went down with mono, lost to Nole in the Oz semis of 2008. Fed fans immediately went on the defence. Everything from the the most trivial loss to the irregular movement of certain planets was blamed on mono. Some of it even carried over to the USO in 2008. The protective instinct against the doubters was undeniably sound, but its execution in many cases was suffocating, overwrought and unnecessary. My view was the great man would vindicate himself and welcomed it when he did, winning the USO and the Olympics doubles title that year.

It happened again at Wimby 2009 (JacketGate) when the phenomenon was at its most suffocating. I didn’t blame Fed, but merely suggesting (as I did) that the Jacket was at odds with why I’d become a fan in the first place and wasn’t perhaps in the best of taste was made to feel akin to an overt act of hostility.

Later still, a similar reaction was evoked when I took a stance against what I felt to be some of his less polished moments. I hold no one above criticism – as a long-running fan I almost felt it my right. The net effect: a door had been opened. And I admitted other players in.

The mantra of art and beauty was also starting to wear rather thin. It was still true that he played (by far) the most elegant game on tour, but all that talk of “poetry” suddenly felt rather hackneyed and it seemed (at least to me) that some of the emotional responses triggered by exposure to his game (or any work of art) could be derived from other styles of play – at least in part.

So I began (prepare to flinch) to dabble. *eek*  And actually, I tell a lie. Rafa had already been admitted “in” for some time, perhaps as early as when he first appeared on the scene. I found the humility completely disarming.

Every time I say that, someone wilfully misconstrues it as an implication that Fed is anything but. I honestly don’t care anymore. More often than not his Swiss reserve is misconstrued as arrogance. For my part, I’d consider it completely dishonest if he didn’t wear a certain amount of pride on his sleeve very visibly for all to see. Is there anything more intolerable than those displays of faux-humility we so often have to endure?

And that’s just the point: Rafa doesn’t make an effort to appear sincere or insincere – he’s simply Rafa. And such effortless humility has a unique charm I can’t honestly attribute to ANY other player. Perhaps such a subjective assessment is just as flawed as the type of fandom I claim to find so objectionable – it is what it is, and I make no apologies for it.


Then there’s Novak. Not gonna lie: I found him utterly repellent when he first appeared on the scene back in 2007. The breast beating, the chip on his shoulder so prominent it was visible from other planets – even his efforts to endear, like the impressions,  seemed try-hard and, ultimately, counterproductive.

And here’s where he came into his own – not only did he quickly dispense with all that crap, he replaced it with an attitude and demeanour as measured and professional as his game itself (something never in doubt). I almost DON’T CARE if this is an act – its effects are overwhelmingly positive. And when you do something for long enough (however insincerely), its not long before it becomes “you”. Feel free to continue hate, but you’ll struggle to find concrete reasons to do so.

And as for Murray, I should think his appeal is obvious: he doesn’t have Fed’s vintage professionalism, he lacks Rafa’s clout and presence, and he’s not anywhere NEAR as savvy as Novak. In fact, he doesn’t seem their equal either in maturity or prowess; rather closer, in fact, to the grumpy sixth-former that refuses to grow up. Yet, in spite of all of this, possesses the talent to beat all of them. I find that combination utterly irresistible. And I feel vindicated when the best his haters can come up with is that he’s “grumpy” – or that he has oversized teeth. 

To cut a long story short, they all hold a unique appeal for me and my rooting interests tend now to be more oscillatory – veering mostly towards the the guy that’s struggling most. I root for the guy that’s trying valiantly to scrape his way out of the ditch. And I root against the guy that’s trying (albeit indirectly) to keep him there.

I was rooting for Fed when he  was struggling in 08-09 right through to his first (and only) RG title in 2009. I was rooting for Rafa only a year later when he was able to put his poor form, injuries and parents’ divorce behind him. I was rooting for Novak at the USO 2010 when I felt he’d missed out on his potential and had been lagging behind the others for too long (only the possibility of a Career Slam for Rafa swung things in his favour in the final). And since the beginning of this year (and probably until he wins a Slam) I’ve been rooting (devoid of all patriotism) for Andy Murray.

The only exception to the rule is Sod, whose tennis is so outlandishly repellent, it actually commands respect. I’ve come to treat the carnage he sometimes inflicts on an unsuspecting draw as a necessary public service, the way a natural disaster sometimes paradoxically ends up being instrumental in stimulating necessary growth.

The same goes for Sveta and Franny on the women’s side – though for very different reasons.

So yes, I’ll be rooting for Fed tomorrow – I feel that’s the only option for a guy that hasn’t reached a Slam final since Oz 2010. It helps that he played the SF he did, it helps that it’s against Rafa at RG, but I doubt it’d be any different if it was Wimby.

There’s really no conflict at all. In fact it feels rather closer to coming full circle.

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