FIVE! @ARadwanska wins 5th straight #WTA Social Fan Favorite Player--> https://t.co/ESRbP3tyNz pic.twitter.com/TBIp162sq5— WTA (@WTA) December 22, 2015
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.