There was a Superbowl commercial a few years ago asking us why we cheer so hard for our teams. It cuts between shots of a guy preparing to kick a field goal and fans all over the country holding their breaths, engaging in superstitions, standing up, etc. And the basic premise of the commercial is that we cheer hard and do stupid shit because in the back of our minds, no matter how rational we are, maybe, just maybe, our actions will influence the flight of the ball. Thus the mind of the SuperFan.
Peter Bodo has a great piece on what it means to be a SuperFan in the context of professional tennis. And I don't know about you, but it really does capture my POV perfectly:
Sitting here at the farm, with a green piece of ash hissing as the wood stove boils out the moisture inside the log, I'm thinking about fans (as many of you know, I loathe what is commonly known as "bracketology") and the exquisite torture they'll be putting themselves through over these next two weeks.Two-hundred and fifty-six players will sally forth in quest of the men's and womens' singles titles, and only one man and one woman's mission will be a complete success. That gives you a rough idea of how perilous it is to be a fan.
I've often written that, to my mind, there are two kinds of fans out there: general tennis fans, for whom the game overshadows the transient individuals who play it (even though those fans have their heroes and villains), and those who sometimes seem more enamored of specific individuals than of the game in general.
I suppose that's true in all sports, but in tennis the pool of fans who attach their devotion to a single player (or players) is much greater - this is why you still find the occasional outlier who bangs his fist on the virtual table in a place like this and says something like: tennis ain't been the same since the days of McEnroe and Connors! He has a point, of course, but it's the self-evident one: nothing is ever the same as it was 10, 20 or 100 years ago. That's what happens when your interest is rooted in individuals, not the enterprise itself.
Team sports are in many ways much easier on the fan. Every day, I see guys wearing nylon New York Giants red, white and blue windbreakers, or OSHA-certified hard hats modeled on the Giants' helmet, complete with the logo. These guys are willing to sit in Giants' stadium in freezing rain in December, so you know they're committed. Yet very few of them are first and foremost Eli Manning fans - what they are is Giants fans, and if Manning happens to wreck their dreams, they're more than happy to throw him under the bus. Oh, they like some players more than others, but their allegiance is to the institution (the Giants), not to one or another of the people who, at any given time, happen to play on the team. This is a liberating and generous mandate for the fan, because it allows him to be a fan as well as a critic. Nobody questions the Giant blue blood of a fan who boos a missed tackle by Antonio Pierce. How often does your typical Novak Djokovic fan boo when Nole blows a passing shot?
But tennis isn't a team sport (even Davis Cup in certain ways fails the smell test). Only those who are fans of the game in general are given latitude for dissent when it comes to the players, but they also are denied the heart-wrenching agony and the spiraling, concentrated joy experienced by fans of specific players. In some ways, those who resist - or keep in perspective - the siren song of personality issuing from each player are realists; those who do not, the diehard fans and KADs, are romantics.
I've often wondered, why would someone live and die by how Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal did on a given day? What's in it for them? Why make that investment?
Not to get too heavy about it - okay, I'll get all heavy about it - I think having a specific, overwhelming favorite, while a narrow and in many ways unforgiving undertaking, gives the fan a way to express and perhaps experience unconditional love. And that's something most of us have spent at least portions of lives hunting. The born-again Christian will understand what I mean; the secular parent will also know -all he has to do is think about how he feels about his kid. We feel good about ourselves when we love unconditionally; we also long to be loved unconditionally, at least partly because it allows us to, well, get away with stuff. But by entering into this kind of relationship with a hero, we stake a partial claim to his or her conquests. When Ana Ivanovic wins, I win too, because I love Ana and this win is my reward for it - unconditionality be damned.
At some level, it's risky to transfer powerful emotions and loyalties to someone you don't know, or know only in his or her limited context as a tennis pro (that is, at some level, a machine. Because anyone who does anything "professionally" is just that, and the lengths to which players go - think Venus or Serena Williams - to try to demonstrate that they aren't "just" tennis players shows it.) How do you know that Janko Tipsarevic really is a "good" person - because he has a Dostoyevsky quote tattooed on his arm? Hey, maybe at heart he's more like Raskolnikov, an axe murderer!
We'll never really know how justified our love is, but isn't that moot, when the love we're trying to give is unconditional? Besides, expending unconditional love on a tennis player is only risky in theory - unlike, say, expending unconditional love on a girlfriend, or spouse. It isn't like any of you guys are going to have to run out for milk because Jelena forgot to pick it up on the way home. The problem with being a uber-fan is that there's only one way to express that unconditional love (or to even show if it really exists, which really means that you have the capacity for giving it), and that's by loyalty.The fan who doesn't understand or accept that is on his or her way to becoming a stalker. And while loyalty to an institution, like a team, leaves you free to criticize anyone who appears to be an impediment to the success of that organism, you can't really do that with an individual. You're in for a penny, you're in for a dollar. Every tennis player out there is an institution unto himself, and his wins and losses are an open and shut case in which the glory or blame is undistributed.
The down-side of unconditional love is also the true test of the effort: It's easy to give when you get something in return, but what do you do when you get nothing in return? That almost never happens in tennis, where everyone lives to fight another day, and those upon whom we're most likely to shower our unconditional love tend to be the ones who pay us back in spades. There's a reason the world is crawling with Federer and Nadal fans, while a Vince Spadea or Igor Andreev manages only a bemused "well done!" now and then. We are, after all, human, and our urge to express and/or experience unconditional love is neatly offset by a considerably more rational desire to see a return on our investment. This explains the gallows humor and wry resignation exhibited by so many fans of Marat Safin. Being his fan is like giving money to that irascible but adorable con man, cousin Charley. It's just the toll you pay for being in his good graces.