Understanding the Tennis Fan
There’s always a point of no return.
For Brad, it was seeing Steffi Graf’s ponytail fly up and hit her in the face when she hit her forehand in a 1990 match against Jennifer Capriati. For Chris, it was watching a teenage Andy Murray at the 2005 Wimbledon stand up to then 14th seed Radek Stepanek by mocking his lucky net-cord kiss. For Kelly Padgett, it was stumbling upon one of Andrea Petkovic’s infamous videos on youtube, and laughing as Petkovic pretended to pay Novak Djokovic for an interview.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the psyche of tennis fans lately. What is about this sport and the people that play it that makes us rearrange our schedules, worry for days on end, and get up at all hours of the night to watch a fuzzy yellow ball be hit back and forth from one side of the court to the other? Why do we care so much? Why does it matter?
To try and make sense of it all, I asked for volunteers to answer some questions for me about their experience being a tennis fan. Overall, I received thirty-one completed “fandom surveys” from fans of twenty-one different players. I laughed and cried as I scoured through them for days, re-reading the candid stories and over-analyzing the similarities and differences between them. I was overwhelmed by the honesty and poignancy. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if I solved any great mysteries, but I did come away with a deeper understanding of the power of our sport.
Melissa has been a Xavier Malisse fan since 1998- fourteen long years of ups and downs. “I just started following him, and never stopped,” she said. “Once I start following a player, I support him through good and bad times, even if that is sometimes hard. I don’t abandon a player because of negative results.”
Ruby, a Marcel Granollers fan, feels the same way. “Pathetically enough,” she told me, “I almost see it as my ‘job’ to stick by him.”
Melissa and Ruby are far from the only loyal tennis fans out there. Thirty of the fans I surveyed said that there was nothing they could imagine (besides a flippant mention of manslaughter) that would make them stop being a fan of their favorite player. Y. Jones, a Kei Nishikori fan, was the lone exception. She told me that she’d have to re-think her commitment to Nishikori if he ever got his ear pierced. “I just cannot stand a male figure wearing (an earring) in general,” she confessed.
Of course, a loyal tennis fan usually endures more lows than highs. Linda started following Flavia Pennetta in 2006, and became a die-hard fan when she saw an injured Pennetta enthusiastically cheering on her teammates in the Fed Cup Final that year. She couldn’t have picked a worst time to start being a fan. Between “the wrist injury, the struggle to come back, the breakup with Carlos Moya, and the struggle to recover from that,” Linda describes the events of 2006-2007 as “twelve months of horror” for Pennetta. But Linda stuck by the fiery Italian, and her loyalty paid off. She got to experience the joys of Pennetta’s two wins over Venus Williams, and her incredible run in the summer of 2009 when Pennetta won Palmero and L.A. back to back and became the first Italian woman to enter the Top-10. Linda describes the entire summer as “magical”.
As an Andy Murray fan, Hannah has been on a roller-coaster ride, but it’s how Murray has reacted during the low points that has secured her as a fan for life. She started following him during the 2010 Hopman Cup, but after his 2010 Australian Open Final loss to Roger Federer, there was no looking back. It wasn’t necessarily his play on-the-court that she admired, but rather his heartfelt display on the podium afterwards that made an impression. “Oh that speech.”
Similarly, Hannah was deeply impacted by how Murray acted after withdrawing from the World Tour Finals in London last November. “I was waiting for him (after his press conference announcing his withdrawal), just wanting to wish him luck for the next season and a fast recovery from that groin injury. As he walked out the venue, he was clearly very disappointed with not being able to play. However, he was still kind enough to give fans his autographs and thank everyone there for waiting and cheering him on.”
“His decentness as a guy is just admirable,” she concludes.
Curtis, an Ana Ivanovic fan, can relate. He recalls being “on cloud nine for an entire month” after (Ivanovic’s) 2008 French Open win, and has stuck by her through all the tough times since. “I have always considered myself a bigger fan of Ana Ivanovic the person, than Ana Ivanovic the tennis player,” he said. “While her results on court have changed over the years, she hasn’t changed as a person, which I really admire. She never let her fame or her struggles change the person who she was. That’s not easy to do. That’s why I keep coming back.”
In order to “keep coming back”, even in the rough times, most tennis fans maintain a delicate balance between their hopes and expectations. Charlotte, an Andy Roddick fan since 2003, realistically expects him to just win a few more minor tournaments, but deep down lets herself hope that he will “win many slams and beat Roger Federer as many times as he damn well likes.” Linda says that she’s learned the hard way to “never really have high expectations for (her) favorite players. The lower your expectations, the smaller you chance is of being disappointed!”
There are rare occasions when hopes and expectations merge together. For fans of players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, this happens more often then not.
Freelance sportswriter Matt Zemek became a Federer fan in 2004. “(Federer) played a brand of tennis that was more eye-pleasing and stylish than anything I had seen before.” He vividly recalled the first breakthrough moment he witnessed as a fan, Federer’s 2004 U.S. Open Quarterfinal against Andre Agassi. “When Agassi forced a fifth set in very windy conditions on that Thursday afternoon – the second day of the match – the American had the advantage. Federer somehow found a way to turn the tide in the fifth set and play particularly focused tennis. When he won, he let out a particularly primal roar and tore at his shirt. (He’s not Djokovic, so he didn’t succeed in tearing the shirt!) Federer seemed to know right then that he had conquered New York and all of its distractions. Sure enough, he didn’t lose another U.S. Open match until 2009.”
After such an immediate and long-term payoff, it’s no surprise that Zemek calls becoming a fan of Federer, “the most rewarding fan investment of (his) life.”
Zemek’s experience is unique. Most of the time becoming a fan, even of the greatest players, isn’t instantly rewarding. Aleksa became a fan of Novak Djokovic in 2005. “I first saw him play Marat Safin that year in the first round of the Australian Open,” she remembered. “He was crushed, of course. He was just a baby with porcupine hair. Six years and six months later he won Wimbledon.”
Anna became a Novak Djokovic fan a little later- in 2010 to be exact. She hoped that he would win another Grand Slam or two, but she never saw the 2011 season coming. “I felt constant surprise, joy, and elation. Never in my wildest dreams did I think he’d pull off all of that,” she said. While Anna admits that she does “hope that (Djokovic) wins all the Grand Slams from now on”, she realizes that is unrealistic. She is going to have to start managing her expectations again, keeping her hopes in check. Angela, a Rafael Nadal fan, is having a hard time doing just that. “Though (Nadal) has accomplished so much already, I would like him to have even greater successes,” she admitted. Angela does, however, realize that he may never reach the same heights he did in 2010, and says she will “deal with it as it comes.”
That’s the thing about reaching the top of the tennis world, whether as a player or as a fan- eventually, there will be a decline.
Siva, a Federer fan since 2001, is trying to come to terms with this. “Decline is the one constant in the game. I am fairly certain that Federer is declining. I am not sure I am prepared to deal with it.” Zemek disagrees. “Watching Federer handle tennis mortality is something to relish, not cringe at (for now),” he says.
Lawrence, another Federer fan, sides more with Zemek. “If (Federer) doesn’t become number 1 in his professional career again the Earth will still twirl around the Sun. Yes. It doesn’t matter.”
Aisha has been an Ana Ivanovic fan since 2005 when she was a ball-girl during her match against Nicole Vaidasova in Miami. Throughout the match Aisha recalls that Ivanovic “was an absolute sweetheart.” Aisha has stuck by the Serbian through the thick and the thin past seven years, but sometimes the losses are hard to take. When Ivanovic lost to Petra Cetkovska at Wimbledon last year, Aisha momentarily lost control and smashed her iPhone to bits. (Luckily she works at Best Buy and was able to get a replacement one quickly.)
Romi Castagnino promised herself that if her favorite player, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, ever won a Major that she would go sky-diving. Mattek-Sands won the Australian Open Mixed Doubles Championship with Horacia Tecau last month. Castagnino is rapidly trying to overcome her fear of heights.
Though the above examples are extreme, it was clear after reading through the surveys just how strong of an affect tennis players have on their fans. I was expecting to read about the loss of sleep, the occasional (or not-so-occasional) skipped class, and the general emotional highs and lows of fandom, but it became apparent that the influence runs deeper than that.
Many fans have drawn messages of hope and fortitude through their relationships with their favorite players. Maureen has learned about toughness by watching Maria Sharapova battle through matches and injuries. “I’ve learned not to give up easily,” she reflected. Christy has taken similar lessons from David Ferrer. “He has shown me that perseverance can overcome almost anything,” she told me. “Just because you’re ‘too short’ or whatever, doesn’t mean you can’t reach (your goals).” Karen Williams added, “Becoming a fan of Venus (Williams) has made me realize personally that through times of adversity you can accomplish much.” Suman has tried to adopt Roddick’s “never-say-no attitude”.
For Hannah, being a Murray fan has made her a much more independent person. She has traveled, often alone, all around the United Kingdom (and beyond) to see him play. For Lawrence, the impact Fed has had on his life is simple. “Be yourself. Stay cool.”
For some, the connection runs even deeper than that. Besides being pushed to face her fear of heights, Castagino has been inspired by Bethanie Mattek-Sands comeback from injury. “This was extra inspirational for me because around the same time she had her injury I broke my psoas muscles and it was pretty serious thing. I am still in rehab but seeing Bethanie come through her injury gives me extra motivation to push harder and keep my mind positive.” Similarly, a Rafael Nadal fan (who chose to remain anonymous), also found inspiration in Nadal’s transition from knee problems in 2009 to three-time Grand Slam Champion in 2010 . While struggling with personal matters during the time of his Wimbledon and U.S. Open triumphs she reflects that, “it was Rafa who got me through the bad days, the ones where I felt there was no hope.”
Most of the time in sports, you become a fan by default. You root for a team because you were born in a certain state, or went to a certain school, or were brought up a certain way. Being a tennis fan is different. It’s a relationship. It’s personal. It’s intimate. We don’t become fans of groups of people, states, or organizations- we become fans of human beings.
Sometimes we choose the players we are going to be fans of. Other times, the players choose us. Whether there’s something about them that we relate to, or something about them that we aspire to become, once the connection is made it’s virtually unbreakable. It’s why we get worked up when our favorite player is insulted. It’s why we get anxious for the matches, sad for the defeats, and exuberant over the victories. It’s why we do care. It’s why it does matter.
If I’ve learned nothing else from reading the stories of thirty-one passionate tennis fans, it’s that our favorite players aren’t just an extension of us, they’re an integral part of us. Most of the time, that’s a good thing.
(Eternal thanks to all those who took the time to fill out a survey and help me with this article: Curtis @curtos07, Charlotte @crystaleyesd, @eternal_elenea, Angela @4allsurfaces, Rhian @rosso_neri, Kelly Padgett, Siva, Lawrence, Chris @scoobschris, Matt Zemek @mzemek, Kelly @mikomonstr, Jane @jb10is, Géraldine, Suman, Karen Williams, Christy @triplebagel, @thriding, Melissa, Sarah @thetennisstorm, Aisha @Isha312, Brad @bradhunter, Maureen @drewsmama, Dianne @champingthebit, Anna @anna_tennisfan, Romi Castagnino, Ruby @ficcanasa, Y. Jones, Brooke, Hannah, Linda, and Aleksa.)