What strange alchemy makes sports fans relate so passionately, so personally, to young, God-like millionaire athletes, wonders Jai Arjun Singh
It was sometime in 2010 that I learnt for the first time that Rafa Nadal didn’t like dogs.
“I don’t trust their intentions,” my favourite sportsman was quoted as saying in a piece on a tennis website; I don’t remember if the original interview was in English, but if so I can imagine Rafa saying the words with a concentrated frown, in a faltering sing-song.
For a while I felt unsettled, almost betrayed. Over the previous two years, much of my life had centred around my canine child, Foxie. Though I had been an ‘animal lover’ in a vague, generalised sense since childhood, Foxie’s arrival came at a time when I had recently begun working from home and so was around her far more than most pet-owners (or pet-parents) are. In the process I had learnt new and frightening things about my capacity for maternal love and protectiveness. (And yes, it was maternal, not paternal.)
Importantly, through the experience of daily walks with Fox in a colony where the majority of residents didn’t like dogs, or were actively hostile to them, I had developed a pronounced wariness about non-dog people. Passive-aggressive confrontations became routine, and I stopped caring about dull platitudes such as ‘respect your elders’—if, for instance, an old curmudgeon from the local RWA came and said something I thought was wrong, I would give back more than I got.
And now, here was the realisation that if Rafa Nadal had been living in my neighbourhood, he would be one of those subhumans shaking a fist at Fox from a distance, or just scowling in the familiar way.
At around the same time, perhaps while reading the same piece, I learnt that Rafa’s rival Novak Djokovic—already a very dangerous opponent, soon to become our nemesis—had a dog, loved it like a child, and even took it on tour with him.
Given how central this subject was to my life, it would have made sense for my feelings towards Rafa to cool and for me to discover a newfound regard, perhaps even fondness, for Djokovic.
But that would be assuming that sports fandom is rational. Naturally, as any fan would know, nothing of the sort happened. The next season, as Djokovic made his first serious run towards all-time greatness, raising his game to a fearsome new level and beating Rafa in six finals, including Wimbledon and the US Open, I suffered through each of those matches. During the worst of those shellackings, I would have considered tossing Djokovic’s pet-child into heavy traffic just so he would tear after it, emitting Balkan shrieks, and perhaps intercept a speeding truck.
One obvious analogy would be with an old and deep friendship I had formed long before I developed strong feelings about dogs (or politics, or culture, or whatever). In such cases, even if you discover that you and your long-time friend have serious differences on issues that have become very close to your heart (the Modi regime, the worth of popular cinema or literature), it doesn’t matter much because the friendship predated your engagement with those things. Forming new friendships is, of course, much trickier. I sometimes wonder how it would have gone if my relationship with Fox had begun before I first watched Rafa Nadal play tennis (and if I had learnt about his dog-dislike much earlier).
How did I become a Nadal fan in the first place, and how did this grow into a consuming obsession that had me following tennis round the year, tournament by tournament, and having intense and prolonged conversations on tennis message boards—in some weeks, spending more time on this than I did on any other activity, neglecting work deadlines in the process? Or rushing off, mid-vacation in Scotland in 2007, to find an internet café where I could check the result of a Barcelona Open match?
Among the easily listed factors: I loved that powerful spinning forehand and the unusual angles it created. I had never watched tennis closely enough to register the nuances of a left-hander’s play before, and I took special joy in watching Rafa’s down-the-line forehand curve into the court, or the way he pounded away at Federer’s backhand. To a fan who, at that point, had a simplistic understanding of the sport, those rallies made it seem like Rafa was the ‘stronger’ (in every sense of the word) player. Briefly, I even bought into the idea that Federer was an overrated fraud who had collected his great haul of trophies against unworthy opposition but was now finally having to deal with a superior opponent. This was, of course, just as silly as the opposite view—held by many Federer fans—that Rafa was a bouncing backboard who did nothing but retrieve the ball endlessly until his more gifted, more deserving opponent made a mistake.
Rafa’s emergence also coincided with a phase when I found sporting dominance tedious. This hadn’t always been the case—I adored the Australian Test teams of the 1990s and early 2000s—but it was the case now, as Federer went for his fourth straight major at the 2006 French Open. After the Swiss won the opening set of the final 6-1, I was both surprised and relieved that Rafa (who had weathered a five-hour epic against Paul-Henri Mathieu earlier in the week) came back to win the match. And yet, even after he won, it was possible to see him as an underdog: the on-court translator misinterpreted part of his speech, drawing boos; the crowd had clearly wanted to see the much-adored Federer complete the ‘Roger Slam’; and at this stage in their rivalry, Federer himself was sometimes dismissive of Rafa’s ‘one-dimensional’ game (this would change over the next couple of years, but I know many Rafa fans who have nurtured that wound and continue to retaliate by labelling Federer ungracious).
That was the first of dozens of times that I watched a Rafa final from beginning to end. I enjoyed the kinetic energy, the fist-pumping. But also, I sensed that these exuberant celebrations didn’t come from a smug feeling of superiority or privilege, or wanting to intimidate the opponent; they came from something like the opposite—finding it hard to believe that one had pulled off this or that shot, won this or that match.
On my blog and on tennis websites, I used to have arguments, especially in the early years, with people who, having only watched Rafa from a distance, had decided that he was an uncouth, muscular brute—“not a very nice person”, as one delicate soul put it. But how strange to think that this muscular brute is also the one major player in memory who has never been seen smashing a racquet. (In fact, that’s one thing about Rafa that I don’t relate to. Being controlled and self-possessed, not showing extreme emotion in moments of crisis—yes, that’s okay. But never losing your temper enough to break something violently? No, I don’t get that.)
I have also had arguments, with those who don’t like Rafa’s game or personality, about his alleged ‘sandbagging’, defined as wilfully lowering expectations for himself even when he is about to play a clearly overmatched opponent in the first round of a tournament. (“Gonna be a tough match, no? Have to play my best.”) I never saw this as dishonesty or false humility: I thought I understood it. In my school days, I was often depressed and hangdog-like after an exam, convinced I had done poorly and my friends would get very annoyed when I subsequently got high marks. But this was how I really felt at the time. It may have been chronic pessimism, or a subconscious fear of letting oneself down (it’s also possible my friends were so overconfident that there was always likely to be this sort of mismatch between our expectations and our results).
This attitude is worlds removed from the confidence always exuded by Federer (which some Rafa fans perceived as arrogance) and later by Djokovic, who recently said in a press conference that he had his eye on surpassing Federer’s record number of weeks as world number 1. It’s hard to imagine Rafa ever giving voice to such an ambition. He may in his own way be just as concerned with legacy, but given his personality, his uncle Toni’s conditioning and his injury history, there is also a tendency to be cautiously grateful for every new achievement or milestone. I believe him when he says things like “I have already achieved far more than I expected to”. Such a statement, made truthfully, can still be compatible with feelings of crushing disappointment when one fails to win an important match or loses seven matches in a row against a major rival.
In his premature autobiography, published in 2010, Rafa mentioned that he sometimes marvelled that he had ever beaten players like Federer or Djokovic in big matches. When Djokovic began mastering him in the following season, it felt almost like a prophecy fulfilled; and when Rafa made comebacks in 2012 and 2013 to win crucial matches against the Serb, I felt that sense of astonishment again. Being constantly surprised has been a big part of Rafa fandom for me, because I see him as an over-achiever on non-clay surfaces. Without buying into simplistic narratives about Federer being the ‘pure talent’ and Rafa being the ‘great fighter’ (that’s a grossly incomplete assessment of both men’s strengths), it’s true that much of Rafa’s finest work has been in come-from-behind positions: whether at the micro-level of turning a match around or the macro-level of trailing Federer for three years at the number 2 spot before finally taking the top spot with the 2008 Wimbledon win (a match where he had the difficult task of serving second in the deciding set).
There are other small details, things one identifies with, which have accumulated over the years. I liked the fact that Rafa (and Uncle Toni) seem to be matter-of-factly atheist (or agnostic), compared to all those players who look skyward and kiss the crosses around their necks every time something good happens for them, as if God has nothing better to do than to monitor their win-loss records.
Speaking of gods though, how does a sportsman become a sort of personal deity (even for an atheist) so that his achievements and failures, temporarily at least, can overshadow those in one’s own life? I have no answer to that question, but I have first-hand experience of it. There’s another connection between my Nadal fandom and my Foxie-centred life, a bittersweet reminder of how sporting passion can concentrate and revitalise the senses.
Early in Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, the narrator-protagonist David Zimmer—having lost his family in a plane crash, and spent weeks in a haze of numbing grief—recalls the first time in ages that he responded to external stimuli: a chance viewing of an old silent comedy on TV. “It made me laugh. That might not sound important, but it was the first time I had laughed at anything since June, and when I felt that unexpected spasm rise up through my chest and begin to rattle around in my lungs, I understood that I hadn’t hit bottom yet […] I hadn’t walled myself off from the world so thoroughly that nothing could get in anymore.”
My version of this story doesn’t involve laughter, or positive emotional stimulation, but operates along the same principles. On June 16, 2012, I lost Foxie: aged just four, she went suddenly on the vet’s table after nearly two years of struggling with a chronic digestive condition, but also at a time when it seemed her condition was stabilising, which meant the end was unexpected, and devastating. It would change everything in important ways for a long time: I could no longer meet or speak with friends who didn’t understand what a big deal this was for me; on one occasion, when someone made a flippant remark, I came dangerously close to asking how they might feel if something very specific and very nasty happened to their (human) child. In the immediate aftermath of her going, I dreaded going to bed at night since I would lie awake, plagued by images of her final moments, aching to be able to cuddle her again. I barely realised when sleep came, if it did.
And then one night, around 12 days later, for the very first time, I went to bed with only around 60 per cent of my mind occupied by Foxie-thoughts. The remaining 40 percent was in faraway England, where I had just watched Rafa lose his second round Wimbledon match to the 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol.
The next few months would be a poor time to be a Nadal fan, as he struggled with his latest round of injuries, missed two Slams, and returned to competitive play only in February, 2013. But this also gave me a chance to distract myself by having particularly impassioned tennis-board conversations (mainly with Nadal-haters who were convinced that he was no longer relevant). Later, as he worked his way back up—eventually winning the French Open and the US Open, memorably beating Djokovic in both, sweeping the American hard-court tournaments in August-September and finishing the year as number 1—watching his matches became a big part of my healing process. In April, 2013, just as Rafa had announced his true return by winning Indian Wells and
starting to dominate the clay season, I found myself revitalised enough to think seriously about a book project (having assured myself over the previous few years that I would never work on a book again) and write a pitch to a publisher.
Years later, another Rafa resurgence—an even more unanticipated one, which took place in his thirties in 2017—would help me as I dealt with another tough personal situation, my mother’s terminal cancer. Chemotherapy sessions in September that year coincided with his US Open run. It kept my senses from being numbed, reminded me that there were still things going on in the outside world that I could engage with and care about.
Being a Rafa fan became, for me, as silent comedy was for Zimmer, a way back into life.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was ‘Sport’.