Match Point? But can he still win it?
Before the start of that all important match the Champion’s fan’s verdict is short, sharp and matter of fact. ‘He is going to lose! He may be the better player, history may be in his favour and on form he should win. But I know he is going to bungle it up, play badly and going to lose.’
The match starts badly for the Champion with a break on his service first up.
‘I knew he would do such a thing. How can he give away the initiative so early in the match? Every time I watch him play an important match, he loses. I shouldn’t have seen this match. He is going to lose.’
Every great shot, every great string of games played by the Champion is appreciated profusely with gasps of disbelief, albeit accompanied with the dreaded thought that it may only be a precursor to some impending silly unforced error, the last flicker of the dying flame eventually leading to the inevitable darkness.
Eventually the Champion begins to assert himself on his opponent. Things start looking up but there is always a lingering doubt. It is almost the same doubt that Gautam Gambhir feels when he asks himself whether he has made it LARGE. Of course Gambhir has made it large otherwise he wouldn’t have been doing that ad. To the fan there are still a lot of things that can go wrong - One break of serve, one game even one point that can change the momentum. Sporting logic says that the match is in the bag but the heart still flutters. The opponent is attributed super human qualities of falling over the brink and yet mysteriously floating back up and getting more than a toehold back in the match.
The Champion is now serving for the match and all the fan can think is that the final nail in the opponent’s coffin may end up pricking the Champion – somehow. All those Narottam Puri vignettes of ‘till the last ball is bowled’ flood the fan’s mind. Each point to the Champion erases the last traces of doubts that the fan felt but even as one of the two Match points is saved the doubts return again for one last time.
'Game Set and Match Federer!' These soothing words eventually put the fan out of his misery and it’s more a sense of relief that is the over powering emotion than pure unadulterated elation.
I have seen so many fans behave like the one described above – self included. And Federer was only a point of reference. A similar feeling of misery, nervousness and pessimism engulfs every sport viewing experience where one is supporting a particular team/player passionately.
What is it that converts a normally logical, sensible, optimistic chap in to a defeatist nervous wreck on certain occasions is a question that has always vexed me. Somehow a lot of people are wired to prepare them selves for the worst case scenario. Should we call it emotional hedging? I have heard this concept in betting terminologies where people bet against a team that they support. If their team wins they lose money but they don’t mind that (obviously they don’t bet large sums) and in case their team loses they get a consolation monetary prize that will reduce the anticipated emotional pain.
Somehow the idea of constantly telling oneself and to anyone who bothers to listen that failure for your idol is lurking round the corner, one is trying to protect oneself from the disappointment that will follow. Is it the fear of failure or is it the fear of failure of a successful sportsman/team? Is it an Indian trait (I know I am sounding like Aakar Patel here) or is it a trait of a particular generation of Indian sports fans or is it just a personal trait?
Ever since I remember following sport played by Indians– whether Cricket or Hockey or Tennis, it was always the same story. One brilliant performance followed by years of inept, unprofessional and sometimes shameful limbo. A brilliant World Cup victory in 1983 was followed by humiliation at home by the Windies. Hockey Gold in 1980 was followed by a drought so severe that even the Sahara desert has received rainfall in the meanwhile. Tennis did see some good Davis Cup performances but there was no Champion who delivered consistently.
Is it the effect of a string of inconsistent performances where victory couldn’t be taken for granted? Not even when 6 runs were needed off the last ball of an ODI or when 17 runs were needed with 4 wickets in hand at Chennai. Indians as sportsmen (in individual sport) or as a team didn’t ever achieve greatness during that 1980-2000 era, they just had a few great days at office once in a while. But there was always a grand failure round the corner.
I am of the opinion that a lot of people from my generation were conditioned to expect very little from our heroes. Because failure was the norm and success was an exception. Continued bouts of disappointments from our heroes could be handled only for a few years. There had to be some protection mechanism against unreal expectations which for us is the form of emotional hedging described earlier in this piece.
Federer fans over the past couple of years had started to feel the need for emotional hedging as well. The British fans though haven’t yet figured out this protection mechanism. For 76 years they have dared to hope. The same cycle of hope, expectation, more hope, more expectation, failure, disgust, self loathing continues at Wimbledon. Maybe I can help them in this regard. But before that let me tell you about how India has no chance to get even one medal at the London Olympics.