The Drive to Like

Thursday, March 17, 2011 /by

Sw INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—“Pop Art is about liking things,” Andy Warhol said of the 1960s art movement he made famous. He might have been describing everything else in life, too. More specifically and thoroughly, he might have been describing the way that tennis fans relate to the pro game.

Those of us with more than a passing interest in it watch tennis for the shot-making and the drama of close matches. But how long would either of those things keep our interest if we didn’t also make them personal? If we didn’t, after a game or two, decide that we liked one player more than the other and wanted that player to win? It’s the nature of the sports fan to pick someone to root for, if only to create a conflict, and a resolution, in your own head.

For a fan, team sports are about liking yourself. You root for the group of people who represent you. That’s rational; it's in your self-interest. Tennis, an individual sport with no national boundaries, relies on irrational—or un-rational, or beyond-rational—fan decisions about whom to like. As mysterious and frivolous as the reasons for them may be on the surface, it’s these decisions that drive our experience with the sport, even to the point where it forces us into illogical and inconsistent positions and emotions.

Liking things: Why do we do it? If we were all sealed off in bubbles and were never asked our opinion on anything, would we have opinions at all? When people talk about art, even if they know nothing about it, they can at least fall back on the fail-safe position, “I know what I like.” Sometimes, I have to admit, I’m not even sure of that; I can look at an object or painting in a gallery, think that I hate it, then come back 10 minutes later and really like it. Even when I do respond to one thing and not another, I often couldn’t tell you why. Why, among painters of monochromatic black paintings, do I like Ad Reinhardt and not get anything out of Frank Stella? If you asked me why, I might say something very smart like, “Reinhardt's paintings glow more.” Is this really an adequate response, or an adequate reason for deciding that you “like” something? If that’s all there is to it, you might wonder why we bother in the first place.

Liking must go deep, though; it must be in the blood. If we didn't find the people we saw around us appealing, if we could just take or leave everyone we saw on the street, we’d never survive. It’s a powerful enough drive that I can look out at the center court here, see the classic Coca-Cola logo on the other side of the arena, and immediately feel good—I like the familiar cursive. Then I look down to my right and see the WTA’s new logo and I’m bothered by the way the top of the W and the T connect; there's something not quite right about that. Why? Don't ask me.

The drive is also powerful enough to turn us into fans, followers, devotees of tennis players we’ve never met. It can drive us to the most severe judgements of those players: I don’t know of any other group of fans who are as picky about even the tiniest quirks and clothes and tics and habits and physical features of their sporting heroes. Part of this is that being a tennis fan is such a personal decision—unlike being a fan of a team—and part of it is that, unlike almost all other sports, there are men watching women, and a high percentage of fans are women watching men. This brings a very different “aesthetic” to tennis fandom. I once asked a woman I know if she liked Richard Gasquet. She wrinkled her nose and scoffed. “I hate guys with slopey shoulders,” she said, as if I were an idiot even to ask. Something tells me there aren’t a whole lot of New York Yankee fans, even female New York Yankee fans, who have decided whether they like or dislike Derek Jeter based on the angle that his shoulders slope.

The drive to like can override all questions of consistency about how we judge the actions of players. I’ll give you two of my own examples from Indian Wells.

Ana Ivanovic is, hard is it may be to believe, a polarizing figure. Many love her by-all-appearances genuinely sweet demeanor, many love her looks, many like her game, many have sympathized with her plight over the last couple of years. On the other hand, there are many who are annoyed by the attention she continues to get despite her relative mediocrity, as well as by her incessant and seemingly superfluous fist-pumping, twirling, and ajde-ing.

I like Ivanovic. Is this because she is attractive? It doesn’t hurt, but neither Maria Sharapova nor Anna Kournikova are exactly hideous, and I’ve never felt all that fan-nish toward either. There’s some combination of Ivanovic’s appearance, game, and ingenuous personality that I find appealing. I was sitting in the front row for her match the other day against Jelena Jankovic. There was a close call at Ivanovic’s baseline that Ivanovic challenged. While she waited, she walked toward an older man near me and asked him, with a smile, “Was that ball een or out?” What’s not to like there?

A few things, apparently. I know more than one person who believes that Ivanovic’s fist-pumping is gamesmanship, or too studied and un-spontaneous to be genuine, or at the very least just really aggravating to hear over and over—“Does she have to do it on every point?” I see it as something she’s consciously tried to do to keep herself focused and energized—a message to herself, not her opponent. I’ve always felt the same way about Rafael Nadal’s similar exhortations. It’s part of the sport at this point, and I don’t see any reason to watch tennis and then get annoyed by every little thing that the players do. (There are exceptions, of course. Foremost among them is being mean to ball kids.) But if I didn’t like Ivanovic to begin with, I would probably groan when she twirled and say, “Every time, really?”

On the other side of my fan coin is Stan Wawrinka. I don’t hate him, and I don’t root against him. I’m just not a fan. To go back to the painting analogy, I see no glow from his game. He seems like a decent guy in press conferences, and not overly cocky. I can empathize with his eternal second-fiddle status when it comes to Roger Federer, and I like that he’s become more assertive on court since he began working with his new coach, Peter Lundgren. His recent off-court activities—Wawrinka left his wife—don’t come into my thinking, either. But some combination of his manner and his game doesn’t appeal to me. When he first came up, with Novak Djokovic, it was the Serb I enjoyed watching much more, and still do. As effective and even awesome as Wawrinka's shots can be, he lacks the top layer of polish that makes Djokovic both a better player and a more riveting perfomer. There’s also an overflow of Swiss-flag-waving Federer obsessives who make Wawrinka their cause, which bothers me for no good reason. (Hey, I’m a tennis fan. Sometimes I can’t help it; little things bug me.)

Wawrinka, like Ivanovic, has developed a tic. He yells—wails—when he wins a big point. Sometimes he looks in his opponent’s direction when he does it. This aggravates me, for the same reason that Ivanovic aggravates other people. Where I see her fist-pumps as legitimate from a competitive standpoint, I see his yells as egregious. To someone else, this might appear illogical and a double standard, but when our are spontaneous likes and dislikes consistent? Would they be as fun and meaningful to us if they had to be? What do I think of Djokovic's full-throated chest-thump, which is the equivalent of Wawrinka's wail? Love it.

Watching Wawrinka beat Tomas Berdych yesterday, I realized that even our responses to individual shots are personalized. Wawrinka, as he usually does, hit some spectacular down-the-line backhand winners. I made a noise of approval, but somehow the shots left me cold. They were just there, a ball hit on a beautiful straight line, touching down perfectly in a corner. But, beautiful or not, perfect or not, they didn’t have that glow in my mind, the glow that keeps us coming back to tennis, the glow of liking.

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