The Ecstasy of Fandom

Photo courtesy of the author

When Matteo Berrettini chased down a dismal Andy Murray drop shot on match point only to dump an even-more-dismal backhand into the middle of the net, the anticipated Australian Open first-rounder became one of those matches that was certain to devastate one player, regardless of who won. Berrettini had put in the hard yards to come back from two sets down and claw all the way to match point in the fifth, Murray had been two points away from the win in the fourth set. But when Berrettini missed that backhand, he put his heart on the line — after a biffed putaway like that, if you don’t win, the miss may haunt you forever.

I cheered for both players at various points during the match. Murray fan extraordinaire (and Popcorn Tennis contributor) Claire Stanley was also at the match, in a different section, and I wanted a Murray win for her and the other cohosts of the Murray Musings podcast, Scott Barclay and Peter Childs. I’ve never been a Murray fan — his on-court demeanor used to annoy me, and though I admired what he achieved in the thick of the Big Three era, my awe never quite morphed into affection. As I’ve gotten to know Peter, Scott, and Claire, though, I’ve found myself rooting for Murray at times. Their unadulterated love for him is just infectious. Claire and Scott attended Murray’s third-round loss to John Isner at Wimbledon last year (Scott wrote a beautiful piece about it), and with that knowledge I cheered for Murray through the TV screen. I felt hollow when he lost.

But when Murray surpassed all reasonable expectations in this match and won the first two sets quite comfortably, I wanted Berrettini — newfound Netflix star, former Australian Open semifinalist — to at least get his teeth into the contest. While Berrettini eventually did, Murray made it a hell of a challenge. The three-time major champion was razor-sharp tactically, constantly peppering his opponent’s suspect backhand and yanking him wide on the forehand, denying him rhythm on his stronger wing. Time and again, Berrettini went for the improbable running forehand winner and missed. When he turned to the slice defense, Murray was almost always able to retain control of the rally.

Berrettini’s typically awesome forehand was often woeful in the first two sets. I initially thought it was odd how many neutral forehands he was blowing, but then I realized Murray had just forced Berrettini to hit so many forehands on the run that he had lost his rhythm on the rally shot. Early in the third set, Murray had a break point, and it genuinely looked like he might win 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, an astonishing scoreline given the caliber of his opponent.

Then Berrettini pushed back, launching a sustained assault of big serves that lasted deep into the fifth set. It felt borderline unfair how well he was serving at times; Murray was openly frustrated after several of his aces, not because he felt he should have done a better job reading the serve, but because Berrettini was producing the aces so damn readily. I’d say the comeback was awe-inspiring, especially the face-melting fourth-set tiebreak, but I wasn’t really surprised. Berrettini is, after all, the man who beat Carlos Alcaraz in a five-setter at the Australian Open last year. (How long it takes before someone else can beat Alcaraz in five sets, truly, is anyone’s guess.) His serve and forehand are imperious. His topspin backhand sucks, but his slice is good enough to mostly paper over that weakness — he hit some slices down the line today that were positively devilish. He’s a hell of an opponent.

In Break Point, though, the new Netflix docuseries on tennis, Berrettini says his biggest asset is not his serve or his forehand but his mentality. He might be right. He is a special kind of fighter. If you go back and watch the match points of arguably the two biggest matches of his life — the loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2021 Wimbledon final and the loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2022 Australian Open semis — you can actually see his body sag after he nets his backhand (yep, that happened on both match points). It’s not in fatigue, it’s in dismay that he lost. Here’s the thing, though: He wasn’t close to winning either match. In each, he was down two sets to one and down 5-3 in the fourth set to a legendary rival. Especially against Djokovic and Nadal, I’d expect a player to already be processing a loss at that point — the odds of a comeback are essentially nil. But Berrettini reacted like the match points had been his own, not his opponents’. He maintained belief that he could win until literally the last second.

After losing match point to Murray in almost comically tragic fashion — a sliced forehand return from the Scot caught the net tape and fell over to Berrettini’s side — Berrettini simply stood stock-still for a moment, like he couldn’t believe what the universe had just done to him. I couldn’t either, and though I started cheering maniacally for Murray on instinct alone in the fifth set and didn’t stop until after the match, I was gutted for Berrettini.

The camera only shows you Berrettini’s reaction for a second, but it tells you all you need to know.

*****

Rooting for a tennis player, any of them, is an inevitably painful road. Such is the nature of the sport that, sooner or later, they will suffer an excruciating loss. Your favorite player will probably get their day in the sun too, but there’s a lot of agony on the road to glory. Even fans of Novak Djokovic — probably the player with the fewest heartbreaking losses out there — have their demons. There were the missed overheads in the 2008 Olympic semifinal and the 2013 Roland-Garros semifinal, the close losses to Stan Wawrinka at majors. When you live and die with your player, you’ll end up dying a few times, no matter who they are. Claire even wrote, wonderfully, about one such death at the start of 2022.

What impresses me the most about tennis fandom is that most aficionados seem to be incredibly loyal despite the pain. They stick with their favorite players through and through. Jethro Broughton, another friend (and another Popcorn Tennis contributor) also roots for players in a way that’s so affectionate it rubs off on me. His favorite players are Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Diego Schwartzman, and Sebastian Baez, which means Jethro has had a miserable time as of late — Nadal hasn’t won consecutive matches since Wimbledon, Thiem is still miles away from his 2020 form, Schwartzman is in a rut, and Baez is on a horrendous losing streak.

But none of that stopped Jethro from putting his heart in the hands of his favorites in the first round of the Australian Open. I asked him to message me throughout Schwartzman’s match today so I could get a sense of how he processed the Argentine’s successes and failures. Here are some of his texts, printed with his permission:

“God I actually feel sick with nerves for Dominic [Thiem] and Diego”

“Omg [Schwartzman] just hit an absolutely insane backhand winner at the smallest of angles”

“I’m fucking stressing”

“Fucking EMBARRASSING…5-0 and 6-3 [ahead] in the tiebreak and [Schwartzman] loses [the set]”

“Had an easy put away forehand on set point and missed it”

“Shambolic”

At the end of the second set

“I’ve calmed down”

“He’s done it [five crying emojis]”

“I’m so fucking relieved”

“I could CRY”

Post-Schwartzman’s win

This was over the course of a few hours. And remember, this was a first-round match. Being a tennis fan is a fucking rollercoaster of emotions. Unlike other sports, your favorite player can suffer a devastating loss every week, and Roger Federer fans who experienced the 2019 Wimbledon final can tell you that there’s really no limit to how shattering a loss can be. And yet, fans solider on, because the highs are euphoric. The manic experience mirrors that of the players’ in some ways; during episode three of Break Point, Paula Badosa discusses both her tennis-induced depression and the drug-like addictive nature of the sport. After Schwartzman sealed his win in four sets, Jethro told me that he wasn’t going to celebrate in our group chat until after Murray-Berrettini ended, because he knew people were losing their minds over the match. Tennis fans get each other.

It’s tennis’s duality that makes it unlike any other sport I’ve seen. The scoring system can be an angelic hand to one player at the same moment it squeezes the life out of the other player’s heart. Murray’s elation was Berrettini’s misery today; the Venn diagram is a circle. There were moments when Murray looked the likely tragic hero, Berrettini the gritty victor, but while tennis keeps you in suspense (does it ever keep you in suspense), it also makes absolute judgments. By winning the match, Murray now has a wonderful night to look back on for the rest of his life. For Berrettini, though? He fought extremely well and played three excellent sets after losing the first two. But the structure of the tour renders that irrelevant. The cold facts: Berrettini was the 13th seed and a 2022 semifinalist at the Australian Open. Losing in the first round this year is a massive underperformance that will see him lose a bunch of ranking points. The fact that he almost pulled off a miracle comeback doesn’t change the fact that he’s about to fall out of the top 20. Though Berrettini can and should be proud of his effort tonight, let’s be honest, he isn’t going to find solace in how hard he tried. This kind of resilience, impressive as it was, is nothing he didn’t already know he was capable of.

*****

Despite Murray’s eventual win, my most viscerally emotional stretch during the match — and I think what will be my strongest enduring memory from the evening — was early in the fifth set when I came to grips with the possibility that Murray could actually lose. I didn’t want to imagine how sad it would make my friends after all their hopes and belief in Murray, and especially after he had built a two-set lead. I was messaging Claire throughout the match, and in the fifth set I had no idea what to say to make the match less stressful. There was a good chance Berrettini would complete the comeback, and if he did, it would be devastating to Murray and his fans.

I spent the deciding set in full Murraynator mode, yelling for the Scot after virtually every point he won. It’s as vocally as I’ve ever cheered for a player, and again, I have no deep personal wells of affection for Murray. I just noticed I had a desperate desire for him to win early in the fifth set. I don’t think you choose these things. A few games into the fateful stanza, I recognized Claire sitting a few sections over, having not known where she was sitting previously.

“Claire I see where you are now,” I texted in a group chat.

“Oh you can see the crying girl with the Scotland flag,” she responded. “That’s good.”

Published by Owen

Owen Lewis has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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