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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Mar 16, 2011

3/16/2011 5:00:00 PM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Archive |

I write about lots of people here, and while they’re all quite different, they all typically have one thing in common: they’re players. Not this week. This week the Sweet Spot is dedicated to the true heart of tennis, the ones who give their blood, sweat, tears and sanity to the sport.

The superfans.

Why this week? Thank Indian Wells, and four people named Christina Beck, Hannah Wilks, Maria Noble and Courtney Nguyen.

About a year ago, I wrote a piece for Smash Magazine called “True, But Blue,” about the hardships suffered by diehards of players in the tank. (Check it out here, page 7). All four women graciously opened up their hearts and their veins to me about what it’s like being the superfan of someone going through a hateful, soul-killing slump. In a nutshell, lots of expletives, lots of violence and lots of therapy bills. Their players? Ana Ivanovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina.

Fast forward a year and who are the four players making the noisiest, most glorious hay in the desert?  None other than Ana Ivanovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina. Struck by this wacky wild Kool-Aid style reversal of fortune, I could only beam imagining their unbridled rapture. More than that, I could only credit their ferocious, undying loyalty.  Because here’s the thing: none of them abandoned ship. Despite their players’ struggles getting even grislier after we spoke (del Potro outright vanished, Ivanovic was brutally denied a wild card into Montreal, Sharapova split with longtime coach/friend Michael Joyce and Safina went on a vicious losing streak that saw her plummet out of the top 100), these diehards never tapped out.  

Cheers to the Superfans

That’s the definition of a true superfan. Despite the world spitting in your face and calling you a moron, you never. tap. out.  Is it a mark of virtue and character or simply evidence of a sick twisted obsession? Who cares! Like a hooker at closing time, you’re still here.

What makes a player so special to warrant such love/lust/stalking?  The superfan can recite a laundry list in reply so stunning your brain will liquefy out of your ears. The superfan will also be the first one to tell you they’re not well.

It’s easy to spot superfans at tournaments when they’re waving flags and flashing their painted chests (and to those people, I both love and fear you more than you’ll ever know).  But diehards are sneaky. Most simply live amongst us, like my four Smash-ing uberfans, quietly going about the business of devoting their lives and psychological well-being to the Religion (capital R) that is their favorite player.

Are superfans lonely? Oh god no. They find each other. You love Juan Monaco? OHMYGODILOVEJUANMONACOTOO! But so much of their life’s work is covert. In some cases it exists in its purest form only on the internet. It’s preferable to having to deal with the mockery of the uninitiated. And really, it’s easy to laugh isn’t it? You Photoshopped your face over Patty Schnyder’s husband’s? You have a Fernando Verdasco toaster cozy? You wear Nikolay Davydenko’s baby tooth on necklace?

But diehards don’t want your pity. They’re all in baby. And they know what their tour of duty is all about. Part of that is never letting your guard down. Even in moments of glory, you must remain in a constant state of catlike readiness for the next disaster to strike, as I learned when I checked back in with my superfans. Expecting champagne flowing and told-you-so dances performed with sparklers sticking out of their noses, I found four diehards who’ve only stuck one pinky toe outside their bomb shelters.

“The pain is still fresh,” confides Ivanovic-lover Nguyen today. “I should be ecstatic but I find myself only cautiously optimistic.” Similarly, Safinaholic Beck isn’t counting Russian chickens.  “I'm not fooling myself into thinking Dinara's "back" - whatever the hell that means - but God, it's a real relief not to be filled with dread every time she steps on court.”  Noble, leading Team Sharapova, expressed excitement but not after qualifying it with “I don’t want to get too excited about this.” Del Potro swooner Wilks is also still in a perpetual state of clench: “How does it feel to have Juan Martin del Potro back and winning? Like I might wake up at any moment. I never had anything but total faith in his abilities…but I also have total faith in the cruelty of the universe and its propensity to smack him down with another career-threatening injury. Or the same one, for economy's sake.”

So in general, in addition to undying loyalty, to be a diehard you must also be able to bear a steady stream of trauma. Like a childbirth that never quite leads to an actual baby. But they and the thousands like them do this for love.  And don’t think for a minute the ones they love don’t love them back. Without a doubt, Ivanovic, del Potro, Sharapova and Safina owe their upswings at least in part to these superfans – and the thousand just like them - who insist on cheering them on when others (in some cases, the players themselves) have all but given up.  Let this be a lesson to diehards of players like Andy Murray, Ernests Gulbis, Serena Williams and anyone else in the middle of a rough patch. Their time (and yours) could be just around the corner.

If you’re a superfan, especially a closet one, let your freak flag fly! You’re the Steel Magnolias of tennis, and this week, my freak flag flies for you.

Follow James at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.