Sunday, January 3, 2016

What it means to be a fan

When we think of a professional tennis player's "team," we think of the player, of course, and then the coach, and--if the player is successful--a physio, hitting partner, marketing representative, sponsors, etc. In a broader sense, however, that team also includes perhaps the most important entity of all--fans. Without fans, there would be no professional tennis. Fans pay to watch players, of course, but they also provide an audience, both during tournaments and during the constant flow of talk, anticipation, critique, and excitement that make up a tennis season.

Players sign autographs, visit hospitals, play in exhibitions, provide interviews, and interact with the rest of us through social media. In fact, because of social media, fans have far greater access to players than ever before in the history of sports. Through social media, we have seen (and heard) everything from the impressive photographic skills of Maria Sharapova to the outrageous Turkish dancing skills of Andrea Petkovic.

Thankfully, the WTA is in possession of extreme riches in terms of personalities, which magnifies the fan experience. It's hard to imagine another sport whose players deliver such a wealth of wit, drama, fashion, intelligence, and total entertainment--both on and off the court.

If you're reading this, you're a fan. You arrange your own schedule, as best you can, around the pro tennis schedule. You lose sleep so that you can watch live matches. You can spell "Pavlyuchenkova" and "Bacsinszky" without having to think about it.

But what does it mean, other than the obvious--you like to watch (and maybe play--no one ever asks "How many times a week do you play football?" to a die-hard football fan) tennis. Some people think we become emotionally involved in professional (or collegiate) sports because we need "heroes." But a hero is someone who shows great courage at a time when it is almost impossible to do so. In my USA culture, physical heroics (or physical anything) are respected more than moral heroics, so it's no surprise that the word "hero" gets bandied about when people are discussing sports.

Commentators say "It took courage for her to make that shot." Actually, no. It took bravery, which is different. Or maybe it just took quick thinking. At any rate, I don't think we generally become emotionally involved with tennis pros because of their courage on a day-to-day, on-court basis.

There certainly are players, however, whose personal challenges have pushed them to go on even when it appeared that they could not; in many cases, they excelled because of their courageous responses to those challenges. I wrote about some of those players a couple of years ago, and I continue to admire--and to be inspired by--every one of them. The WTA's Power To Inspire theme (my favorite WTA theme since 2004's Get In Touch With Your Feminine Side) uses imagery to remind fans that they can be inspired by the WTA's greats.

And if the inspirational power of players like Serena Williams, Li Na, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Elena Baltacha, Flavia Pennetta, and Vika Azarenka were the only emotional connection we had with the WTA, it would be more than enough.

But it isn't. Tennis excites us because it is tactical, athletic, mentally challenging, and unpredictable. In some cases, it excites us because it is so very graceful. We feel pleasure and satisfaction when we see Serena hit a perfect serve, when Petra delivers bombs into the corners, when Aga dazzles us with trick shots, and when Simona kills with speed.

Sports stars, because they risk competing, represent our own struggles with fear, expectation, motivation, and self-assessment. Why are we so upset when our favorites lose? And why do we sometimes cry tears of joy when a favorite player wins? We shake our heads and go "Oh, Petra!" when she suddenly loses what was a "sure thing." We watch mesmerized when Alize Cornet displays theatrical agony on the court. We yell at our favorites (it doesn't help, but I do it, anyway, and especially at Petra) when they are just not doing what they should be doing during a match.

The missed volleys, double faults, chokes, and mid-match letdowns are projections of our own perceived failures. Pushed by our cultures and our brain hormones to "win," we suffer when we fail to meet standards that may or may not be legitimate. Maria Sharapova once said, "When you're going through tough moments, you never know when you're going to have good moments." How true. And how much safer it feels to manage the demons that surround each of us by feeling the pain of our favorite players.

On the other side of the equation--if we witness a victory, especially one that was not predicted, we tap into our usually-buried belief that anything is possible. When Amelie Mauresmo won Wimbledon in 2006, I bought a bottle of rather good champagne and invited my friends to drink it because Amelie had done this amazing thing. I had never stopped believing in Mauresmo, no matter what anyone said, just as I never stopped believing in Marion Bartoli.

And--just as it is easier to openly express our pain by displacing it onto the pain of our favorite players--it's often easier to believe in those players than to believe in ourselves.

Whether we're being inspired by players' responses to personal challenges, awestruck by the beauty of their performances, or just allowing ourselves to project our uncomfortable feelings onto them--being a fan is a very emotional, very special, privilege.


Todd.Spiker said...

You can make a good case that tennis fans might be the most loyal of any of sports, considering the week-to-week, day-to-day, often-bumpy existence of a player on the tennis tour (maybe only baseball in the U.S. comes close to it, with a nearly a game-every-day schedule, though only for 6-7 months, unlike the much longer tennis schedule), and the "long view" that often has to be taken when it comes to success. Fans live with the player(s) through their frustrations as well as their triumphs, but remain loyal throughout even when things turn bad... hoping for the moment, however brief it may be, that things will take a positive turn. Unlike with many, if not most sports, you rarely hear of tennis fans becoming disillusioned with the direction of a player's career and deciding to no longer follow and/or support them.

I don't know if tennis fans get enough credit for that.

Diane said...

That has certainly been my experience, except for that time when I had to "break up" with David Nalbandian.😞

You're right, though. Tennis fans are extremely loyal, and I think that has to do with the depth of personality of the players, especially after we watch them for many years and see them mature and change. And now, with social media, there is an even thinner barrier between players and fans.

Graham Giles said...

Good article Diane, but for me it raises the question of what proportion of the people who follow tennis are fans in the sense that I believe is implied in your article, as being someone who wants a particular player to win every match they play against whomever. On that basis, a lot of people who watch tennis (including me) wouldn't qualify. If you go on you'll find that a lot of the posters there have several players they support rather than just one.

Tennis is a sport you can watch for the sheer pleasure of the rallies and shotmaking (a case in point, when Aga Radwanska and Alize Cornet play each other) without being overly concerned about who wins in the end.

Then there's the question of national allegiances in tennis. As a Brit I want the British players to do well; but since tbh they rarely reach the final stages of the big events, to follow British players exclusively would be a recipe for almost eternal disappointment, so there are other players I want to win as well.

And there are complicating factors too - do you support a player who's perhaps won several slams and over a dozen WTA titles but with a very appealing personality, over someone of a similar age and whom you also like as a person but who hasn't managed to win a slam yet and for whom winning one would be a major career breakthrough in a way it wouldn't be for the first one? Or a younger player who delights you (like Belinda Bencic for example) but who has got her whole career ahead of her to win something, over an older player who's probably at least in the autumn stage of her career and doesn't have as much time ahead of her to win something big?

Not easy questions IMO.

Diane said...

Good points all, Graham. I think most fans have more than one "favorite." I know I have several favorites, but also "second tier" favorites! Having several favorites is hard for me when they play each other, and especially when there is one of those scenarios you described, such as the veteran's waning chances, and the young p,ayer's chance for an exciting breakthrough. Being a fan is complicated!