Thursday, June 19, 2014

The evolution of an American fan of American tennis

One of the great thing about being a tennis fan is the ability to celebrate the sport on one's own terms. Everyone comes at his or her fandom from a unique perspective, but the story of how and why a particular brand of fandom developed is often an untold story.  This is my version of how, as a tennis fan, I came to be almost exclusively interested in following the careers of players representing the USA. 

Consider it my manifesto!

During this 2014 World Cup, displays of intense nationalism are numbingly commonplace. Countless of ordinaries (including me) who wouldn't know a Neymar from a Nomar still get a big rush when the country of their birth scores an elusive goal; wins a valuable three points. And plenty of world-weary sophisticates (including me) who otherwise find displays of naked patriotism to be at best cringe-worthy and at worst reifications of neocolonialist subjugation will find nothing odd about strapping on a flag and crowing about a last-second victory over a relatively poor African country.

The same can happen on a more local level, say with professional teams representing certain cities. Sure you have plenty of Miami Heat or Manchester United fans all over the world. But the chances of any one person being an absolute FANATIC about the Kansas City Royals or the ... ummm ... Brisbane Lions are greatly increased by being from or in or otherwise connected to those particular cities. Those places.

Endless columns and books can and have been written about this phenomenon; what it means about identification and otherization; whether it's good or bad or just is. I'm not about to engage in any exercises in sociology or human psychology. All I know is that I find myself an avid fan of USA tennis players and I unabashedly root for them to win WIN WINNNNNNN to an acute degree.

I root for US tennis players even when I find myself deeply disturbed by their awful off-court statements, their political affiliations, or the ugliness of their games or on-court demeanor or shenanigans. I root for them whether they are the underdogs or the favorites, whether I've even seen them play or not, whether they've disappointed me for what I swore was the last time or have yet to crush my hopes and spirit.

I was a casual fan as a youngster. I remember my mom would watch some events featuring Goolagong, Conners, Evert, and King but I wasn't obsessed by it.  In high school a friend of mine told me about this fellow teen named Andre Agassi and I remember following his scores in the papers with some enthusiasm.  Michael Chang's French Open win was a turning point (he was my favorite player for nigh on a decade). Zina Garrison's 1990 Wimbledon final run was another exiting time. The Capriati/Seles 1991 US Open semi. The early reports of the next phenom: Venus Williams. (Looking back, it's a bit embarrassing the riches we had.)

I was a pretty big fan of tennis through the early 90s in college and then even more so with the advent of the internet. It was fun to connect with other fans, however remotely, and debate dumb issues on bulletin boards.

I have had non-US faves over the years.  Particularly in the early 2000s I will admit I did enjoy supporting underdogs or players I thought were unfairly castigated (Kournikova). Then there were my players from underrepresented parts of the world: Your Paradorn Srichaphans. Your Milagros Sequeras.  Your Angelique Widjajas.  I rooted hard for them for awhile.  And I became a Momo-for-lifer following her courageous coming out.

But in my heart I was a homer. And I've just found that the more I started attending professional tennis events and closely following rankings and being able to watch clips online and engage with social media, the more it was clear: the results I cared most about, the matches I most wanted to see, and the players who were able to get me most illogically passionate were the Americans. Chanda Rubin. James Blake. Jennifer Capriati. Robby Ginepri.

Of course, the tennis establishment promotes this nation-based approach to tennis to a great extent. It's enforced by very fact that each player has that three-letter acronym or flag by their name ... that official team competitions are nearly de rigeur and all by country ... that the vast number of wildcards are given to players representing a particular country. And the media (in every country it seems) exponentially reinforces that impulse.

Historically there have been exceptions for me among US players. It's never been easy for me to root for Serena Williams (I'm often secretly happy when she loses), and for years Venus also was a tough one for me to connect with. A lot of that had to do with my utter disdain for Richard Williams. I also found Pete Sampras nearly impossible to root for after his first major victory in 1991. Not to root for US players was a luxury at one time - and their dominance came at a time when there were other choices (Seles, Agassi, Davenport) among top-tier players. Those days sure aren't coming back, and I can't imagine me being blase about any US player under 30 today challenging for a major - or minor for that matter.  US players are the underdogs today in the grand scheme of things, while Europe is the big bad bully.*  I'm probably happier with the hapless.

In any case, the older I've gotten, the more I've traveled, and the less idealistic I've become, the more at peace I've become with being a tennis nationalist.  And it's led me to interesting new corners of the tennis world: Futures events, NCAA tennis, juniors.  It's been fun - watching players slowly (or not-so-slowly) climb the rankings; connecting with other unabashed American fans of American tennis; even at times debating those who will gleefully trash the current batch of American players.  And the trip I took in April with my boyfriend to watch the US women valiantly try to beat France in Fed Cup was the apotheosis of my current fandom. That was fun.

Oh and in the final few days of majors, I still have the ability to put aside the lack of US players and root for Roger over Andy, Andy over Novak, and Novak over Rafa. I'm not a total zealot.

*For what it's worth, I absolutely love Europe the place and its cultures and people. Love. It.

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