A form of play

Or, the devotion of the tennis fan

British imperialists may have invented the modern idea of organized sport, associating valour on the field with virtues such as ‘fair play’, being a ‘good loser’ and, above all, nationalism. But, writes Elizabeth Wilson, the devotion of the tennis fan is of an altogether different quality.

When we moved house, my partner and I bonded with our new neighbours (as we had years ago with our former ones) as fans of Arsenal football team. I actually take little interest in football; I am a tennis fan, and specifically a Roger Federer fan. It is the global sport of football, however, that oils the wheels of casual local social interaction, so that exchanges of views about Arsenal on the pavement, in the gym or out walking the dog contribute to a vague sense of community in the diverse districts that form inner North London.

Roger Federer vs Marat Safin, Centre Court at Wimbledon, 29 June 2007. Photo: Roo Reynolds. Source:Flickr

So fundamental is football to nations that it has become a clich√© to describe it as a religion: the stadium as cathedral and the fans as worshippers, with all the sacred ritual of anthems and special vestments such as scarves and shirts. Certainly a walk round Islington before the big match yields the sight of windows transformed into shrines to Arsenal with flags, rosettes, shirts and even cuddly animals dressed in Arsenal colours. It’s the secular equivalent of a Catholic cemetery, and no one finds it odd.

Only the devoutly religious deplore this worship of a so-called religion without either moral or spiritual values – and, for that matter, one without a god. They are wrong, for football, like every religion, incorporates an entrenched moral framework, which used to be referred to as “muscular Christianity” and developed when Victorian British imperialists invented and disseminated the modern idea of organised sport, associating valour on the field with virtues such as “fair play”, being a “good loser” and, above all, nationalism. Sporting ideology acted as a conduit for “British values” throughout the Empire. The idea developed that sport was somehow morally superior to all other activities and spectacles, whether intellectual or aesthetic; and sport today continues to claim the moral high ground in spite of widespread corruption, gambling, match fixing and use of performance-enhancing drugs. Without irony, these are routinely dismissed as alien to the true spirit of sport, when in reality the basis of sport is ruthless competition. (As such, of course, it is highly compatible with advanced capitalism.)

Football is so tightly knitted into the daily life of the male half of the human species, and increasingly the female half as well, that it is considered eccentric not to be a fan. It seems to have become part of human DNA. Its stars are world-famous celebrities, so to the sporting ethos is added the gossip and bling of celebrity culture. The stars come to resemble gods, but have little in common with Jesus or the Prophet. They recall, rather, the ancient pagan gods of Greece and Rome, a quarrelsome, adulterous and glamorous set of all-too-human hedonists and adventurers.

Football heads the hierarchy of sport, but it is the relatively minor sport of tennis that has provided divinities to outstrip even Beckham and Maradona. Tennis was historically separated from the high moral tone of other sports. Because men and women shockingly inhabited the court together, it was tainted with effeteness and flirtation and was at first dismissed as not a proper sport at all. This may have made it especially susceptible to the world of celebrity culture.

Since the Second World War a largely successful campaign has been waged to reconfigure tennis as equal in macho aggression and brute power to other sports, so that today it is often compared to boxing, reliant on endurance and muscle rather than tactics and elegance. In spite of this, tennis has never quite shaken off its questionable association with glamour, the high life and social elitism.

A crucial aspect of the game is its individual nature: two individuals pitted against each other in an enclosed arena, their every bodily gesture under the microscope (even more so since the advent of television). This has long lent it an operatic and even hysterical atmosphere (as in John McEnroe’s notorious tantrums or the shocking revelations of Billie Jean King’s lesbian lovers). It is hardly surprising that such performers become as much like gods and goddesses as the film stars of Hollywood.

The intense devotion, verging on hysteria, of the truly committed tennis fan differs from other sporting fandoms in potentially transcending nationalism, partly because of the individual nature of the contest. True, the British are “supposed” to support their top player, Andy Murray; the French “ought to” support their numerous high-ranked stars. Yet the French crowd prefers the Swiss Roger Federer above their own heroes, while some years ago John Isner, a top American player himself, opened a website called “If tennis was a religion, Federer would be god” – not the great American players Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi, but Federer.

The journalist (and tennis player) William Skidelsky has recently attempted an individualistic explanation of Federer-worship in terms of his own personal narrative. Federer and Me is an uneven book. Skidelsky’s precise and skilful analyses of Federer’s wonderful game yield genuine insights into the reasons the player is so exciting and beautiful to watch.

Like the late David Wallace Foster in his famous article “Federer as Religious Experience” (later renamed “Federer Both Flesh and Not”), Skidelsky attributes a kind of magic – something supernatural – to Federer’s shots when these seem to achieve the impossible. Admiration for a player’s brilliance, even “genius”, though, is not enough to constitute fandom. Nor is nationalism. On his pilgrimages to watch Federer at tournaments all over Europe, Skidelsky became aware of the trans- and supra-national nature of Federer fandom (although many of his fans are, of course, Swiss). So there has to be something more than supreme skill or nationalism to account for the devotion of the fans who follow him around the world. (One fan wrote on the Federer website, “I came all the way from India to see you – my god.”)

Skidelsky deploys an autobiographical narrative of depression and relationship difficulties to explain his obsession. (Perhaps significantly, Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch, describing his pilgrimages as a football fan, also felt depression was involved in his devotion to Arsenal.) This suggests that fandom may offer a psychological compensation for a felt lack or emptiness in oneself. Not all fans, however, suffer from depression; and, since every Federer fan will have a different personal narrative, this explanation is necessarily incomplete. It certainly does not answer the question put by a fan on the Federer website:

I’m the biggest fan in the world, but this hero worship borders on sick … how so many people need to live through someone else … like we ALL don’t have our own strengths. Like we need to live vicariously through Roger. I’m an emergency room nurse, helping to save lives every day … I LOVE ROGER and I’ve disorganised my life to watch his matches, but I’m wondering what does it all mean

It may be partly simple desire, for there is a lot of eroticism in some – not all – fan worlds. Some fans of Federer’s rival Rafael Nadal, for example, ran a private site on which they posted erotic scenarios about him. But when during a Federer match a manly voice shouts from the stadium, “I love you, Roger”, this is not a homosexual declaration and sexual desire does not feature.

The fan’s devotion is intangibly located somewhere between desire and worship (respectively, the Greek eros and agape). An important dimension of Federer’s game is its often remarked upon aesthetic beauty, and the Federer match for his followers is an aesthetic as much as a competitive experience, admiration – adoration – for the player having the same transcendent effect as the contemplation of nature or the sound of music.

The contemporary world is saturated with sound and spectacle, but this is often ugly, banal and trivial, and this world, allegedly hedonistic and consumerist, retains an underlying, grudging Puritanism. The pursuit of beauty “for its own sake” has long been held suspect, when actually the pursuit of beauty is an aspiration towards the ideal; since we live an embodied, concrete existence, our vision of the ideal takes on a concrete form. So, like Karl Marx’s assessment of religion, Federer fandom may be construed as a compensation of personal difficulty and disappointment, “the heart of a heartless world”, but it also has a lot in common with the experience of art spectacles. To watch an opera, a play or a great film is to share the vision of the artist, to share their struggle to achieve perfection, to live vicariously the dramas of the fictional figures. The experience of a Federer match, too, is of aesthetic beauty – Youtube contains many examples of videos in which fans have set Federer’s movements to music – and is also a vicarious sharing of his triumphs and losses.

The fan, like the aesthete, is poised between daydream and inspiration. Federer represents an ideal of perfection expressed in bodily form. There is ultimately little difference between this and a Bach cantata intended (originally at least) as an expression of Christian devotion.

The devout and sometimes prejudiced emotions and behaviour of the fan (Skidelsky describes how all Federer fans must loathe his rival Nadal as the devil incarnate) shed an unexpected spotlight on the religious believer, for in a sense the worshippers of any or all religions are actually fans. Were they to be so regarded this might at least to some degree blunt the bigotry of those faithful who feel that they and only they are right and all unbelievers criminal or deluded. However convinced the faithful may be that theirs is the only truth and that they alone are “right”, “faith” in reality is a choice rather than a revelation.

Instead of regarding the sports fan as indulging in a pastiche of religion, we should understand that its arbitrary nature and its silliness is in a way what saves it. Even if the fans’ (or perhaps anti-fans’) hatred of Nadal borders on bigotry, it is bigotry-lite, a game, like sport itself, a form of play.

Like so many spectacles, sport potentially fulfils a desire to admire, an aspiration towards beauty. So, if tennis were a religion, Federer would not be its god, but rather a spirit like Ariel, beckoning his followers to the joy of seeing rigour, self-discipline and striving achieved in the perfection of performance. A moment of transcendence in itself – achieved by a concrete being rather than a disembodied thought.

Published 9 September 2015
Original in English
First published by New Humanist, 3/2015

Contributed by New Humanist © Elizabeth Wilson / New Humanist / Eurozine

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