Love for the Underdog

Jan 22, 2010

Why exactly do we love an underdog so much? Although we like to see Federer display a master class in all things tennis, style and cool, there’s still that little part of us that wants to cheer every time world ranked one hundred-and-something gets a point against the champ.

We love the underdogs. The media is obsessed with it. It has become a fashion trend, a real label of honour that can do wonders for a player’s PR if they are labelled ‘the underdog’. Underdogs are exciting and don’t fit the set pattern that, say, the top ten players do. They play to every maverick fantasy we have ever had outside of watching Top Gun.

There are two types of underdog. Type 1 is usually lowly ranked and rarely known outside of tennis circles. They have recently beaten a higher ranked player and a face is finally put to their name on the rankings lest. In depth details of their trials and tribulations are written about in newspapers because, let’s face it, we all know everything about Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, the Williams sisters, and the articles on them are starting to get very repetitive. They may have had a terrible injury in their past (Taylor Dent, for example), or have had to carry the preconceptions about a woman’s capabilities after having a child (Kim Clijsters). Or they could have just scored big at a Davis Cup match for their country, made one round further in a Grand Slam than everyone had expected, or caused a scare to a top ten ranker.

A Type 2 underdog is more widely known. Those who follow tennis nod sagely at a mention of him/her, and even those who simply flick through the sports page think they vaguely recognise the name when someone mentions it. (Usually followed by: “is he the bald/Swedish/freakishly tall one” or “is she the one with the kid/one that retired and came back/one that beat one of those Williams sisters?”)

They have always hung around in the rankings, but haven’t been especially noticed. They plod along, earning good money and doing well in the tour, getting far enough in the Grand Slams to get a mention as a possible contender in the quarters/semis. And then, the Catalyst. Without a Catalyst, the potential Type 2 remains just that: only a potential, not an actual underdog. With the Catalyst, they are thrust into the newspapers limelight. People use the name to baffle friends they know don’t really follow the tennis. The papers find pictures of them holding hands with their significant other, and for a brief moment they are clear of photos of the big names. These type 2s are not underdogs in the sense that people think it is impossible to beat the top players, or that people know nothing about. It’s simply that they never had before, or if they did it had never been in the right time/place. As Soderling learnt, when he beat Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of the French Open. And it’s just that no-one has ever really been bothered to delve into their lives the way they have been with the top pros.

This season’s most desirable underdog is Nikolay Davydenko, and that is why there are editorials flowering here, there and everywhere about the guy. He is new to the limelight (although he has actually been slogging away at tennis for as long as the rest of them), he is ‘alternative’, he’s Russian and he’s not a female player. His catalyst was winning the ATP World Tour Finals, a competition that contained the likes of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, in fact all the top eight were there.

For most of last year, it was Robin Soderling and Kim Clijsters, with Juan Martin del Potro having his brief flicker as an underdog when he was in line to play Federer in the finals of the US Open, before going on to win.

Is it fair to take these players and hold them up on a pedestal for all of a few months before they become part of the background noise again? Or is that just part of sport? I’d probably agree with the latter idea. We all need something new and thrilling to keep us excited about a sport. And tennis is unique in that way. You don’t support a team, you support an individual. It’s a much more personal sport in that sense. We are always happy to get hysterical about a player who beats one of the pros. We love our underdogs.

- SophieG

Written by: SophieG

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