If you’d ask me, I’d say all of sports is a big sham. Probably the biggest of them all. Millions or even billions of dollars going up in smoke over a bunch of guys in shorts who spend an hour or more grunting, cussing and running all over the place. Think about it. What have they done for us? Have they cured a life threatening disease? Have they stopped wars, or given birth to the steam engine or even the little Post-It notes that dot my desk? No, sir, they have not.
I remember as a lad when people used to start shedding tears whenever we lost a critical fixture at the Cricket World Cup. Not to mention all those who harangue their own senses by hockey’s "sad" demise in our sporting culture. These days we’re all obsessed with the Premier League, something that confounds my mind to no end. It’s the height of irony. People in India tend to support the predominant teams of the decade. In a way, you can tell when your friend started watching club football. If it’s Arsenal, it was probably during the Invincibles season, Chelsea for the Mourinho era and United does the job of ensnaring all our remaining die-hard fans. No Sunderland, no Blackburn (with or without Indian ownership) and definitely no West Ham (that’s taboo).
Don’t brand me a heretic. I’m ready to fight my case. When a team or an individual or a mix of both get famous, brands are all ready to splurge their booty for a 15 second commercial that leaves some of us salivating. Fuming in my case. You could do a lot with that cash. Give it to the families of those who’ve sacrificed their lives in the army, or use it to help the poor and the unfairly deprived. I get it when someone works to earn his money. I just don’t understand the logic behind the crunching of numbers in this case.
Of course, I can make an exception with certain sports. Or certain individuals. Take Roger Federer, for instance. One look at him and you can tell he’s special. The sort you see once in your lifetime. Calm, elegant, and with shots that speak of grandeur and understated efficiency in one go. Nadal’s good but he runs around too much for my liking. That’s a lot of hard work and getting brutishly physical. Achievable as well, I expect a horde of clones in the near future. Djokovic is on fire but then it’s hard to see how he can keep this up. Even today, when Roger plays, he makes his job look ridiculously easy. That is, I think, the mark of a true genius. You work as hard as you can to get there but not without some innate talent. If you can look at a sportsperson play, and then shake your head with a I-can’t-do-that-the-way-he-does look, the player is huge.
My obsession with Roger started in the summer of 2004. I was then an admirer of Andy Roddick. Boom-boom serve and all that. The Wimbledon final was on air. The match was a big one, Federer defending his title against a resurgent Roddick, looking for a shot at reclaiming his No.1 ranking. Federer won in straight sets. And I shamelessly switched allegiances. It was all smooth sailing from then on. For several years then, there was a juggernaut annihilating everything in its path, and as a fan I was happily sitting on the bandwagon. Things started to change after the Wimbledon 2007 final. You could see the great man was struggling. The victory was difficult, and mononucleosis followed the next year. In one swift stroke, I was thrown out of the lazy comfort of my courtside loyalty into the dark streets of uncertainty and doubt. Every point lost was terrible, each title lost was a pain that shot up my forehead. It reached a nadir when a victory could only bring relief while every loss brought days of disillusionment and despondency.
That’s when I realized the three stages of fan following. They don’t necessarily follow a particular order. But this is my story, and this is how it went. There’s this glorious phase of upsurge and triumph where you can only get better, when a loss is only a stepping stone to even more greatness. It’s easy to support your man, and you can let loose screams of vindication, and snarls of condescension. Then, the plateau. A phase of recurring patterns, of victories in familiar grounds, of defeats that shouldn't have really happened, it’s when you start coming to terms with the possibility of vulnerability and mortality. It becomes hard to accept things as they come and a lot of your mates have a thing or two to say about your erstwhile claims. And then there’s the last stage. You happily accept what comes your way. You will most happily revel in victory but a loss would only mean a kind shrug of the shoulders and a fatherly clap on the back of your man.
All right I admit it. I am a hypocrite. Arrest me if you will. I don’t think sports is so great, that Lionel Messi is a lot more than a short kid who runs really quickly. I mean, think about it. What have these people done to our lives? Made us happier? Only if you are ready to immerse yourself in their victories and defeats. If I had my way, I’d tell every sportsperson that playing sports is deeply atavistic, a throw-back to the times when we had to live a Captain Caveman life. Grow up folks, we’ve evolved over the years, we need to get a thrill from sophisticated, metaphysical constructs. Not animalistic activities. I do make liberal exceptions and while I write this the French Open shall soon begin. Allez Federer! Get through the semi-finals and I’ll be proud of you!