Loyalty for the Wimbledon underdog

WIMBLEDON, in all due modesty, brings out the best in me. Not only does this annual summer tennis bash (viewed, naturally, from that superior grandstand known as the armchair) waken my otherwise dormouse-sleepy sense of sportsmanship, it also rouses my most charitable side: On principle, I always support the underdog. This is not quite so simple as it sounds. For a start, it is not always entirely clear who is the underdog. This is particularly so in the finals, when usually it is the Elite-As-Before battling it out to see which will earn 155,000 (about $295,000) and which only 77,500 ($147,000). As both have probably been multimillionaires since their 18th birthdays, the matter tends toward the academic.

If last year's champion is involved, however, then his opponent is, of course, the one to shout for. If, on the other hand, the champ begins to look rather dramatically like an ex-champ - say he loses the first two sets 6-0, 6-0 and is consistently serving double faults in the third - then one's allegiance is sorely tried.

Should his/her game further deteriorate, and if the TV commentator begins to analyze the consequences of advancing years (in top tennis nowadays it seems as though any player over 25 is considered virtually senile), and if the crowd starts to cheer with wild exaggeration every time he/she manages actually to hit the ball over the net ... then last year's star has definitively become this year's second-rater and has now won the benefit of my unqualified, unstinting endorsement.

Earlier in the championship, decisions of this kind are often easier. When last year the two-time winner Boris Becker was prematurely beaten by the unseeded Australian, Peter Doohan, it was Doohan I was rooting for. Underdogs sometimes win and still remain underdogs. For instance, Doohan seemed to get far hotter than his opponent in the victory process; he continued to look like a loser even though he had won. His sudden triumph and fame, wrought by some dynamically charged, brilliant tennis, still did not convince the cognoscente that he was really an upperdog.

And one had to agree with the defeated German whiz kid when he afterward graciously explained what happened by pointing out that (a)his playing was not so good as usual and (b)Doohan's was much better than usual. Doohan got his own comeuppance a couple of games later at the hands of an unseeded Yugoslav of unpronounceable name, thus proving the unfortunate point: He was still a loser. He had my encouraging loyalty right behind him all the way.

Later we sat transfixed as one-time champion Jimmy Connors faced what looked like inevitable ignominy and defeat at the hands of a player called Mikael Pernfors, a Swede (though he sounded just like an American when he shot the required verbal brickbat or two at the umpire).

Here loyalties were especially difficult to place. Connors has really won so frequently that he can't be classed as an also-ran. On the other hand, as the commentators never failed to reiterate, his greatest glories are now mainly in the past, and since he's a player in the dotage of his mid-30s, one simply has to admire his sporting determination for continuing to hit the ball about a bit.

The crowd on the stands showed every sign of sympathy, oohing and ahing every time he managed a somersault or whipped back a backhand cross-drive swifter than light: What wonders can yet be pulled off by those up in years....

I joined the crowd. Ancient Jimmy (once the Beast of the Centre Court) had at last earned my backing. He was failing fast. He had given away the first two sets, and now half of the next, by a combination of dither and miss. Here, if ever there was one, was a has-been. To make matters worse, his young opponent had one of those upstart haircuts currently favored by brash teen-agers: shaved up the back and sheared horizontally on top to look like the bristles of a brand-new scrubbing brush.

And his shirt had a loud, aggressive band of twisting colors and an Op-Art checkerboard across the chest that were obviously meant to befuddle the enemy. Everything was against the nice, honest Connors.

Well, to cut the story short, Connors won. His game picked up. He took about 14 points in a row. He grasped the third set; grabbed the fourth; and sliced his way to victory in the fifth. Pernfors was trounced.

At the time my reader reads this, of course, this year's winner of the men's singles will not have been decided. For now, though, I am still quite happily in the anticipatory dark. And one thing I know. I don't want Connors to win. He is no longer an underdog.

Unless, of course, he loses.

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