Tennis fanatics – among whom commentators loom large – hate to see the big names lose. If Nadal (or Federer or Djokovic) loses in the first round at Wimbledon, this is seen as a major tragedy. How can it be a proper tournament without the champions?
I, on the other hand, love to see it, even if I know Nadal is a nice bloke, and even though I can see he is limping. Why do I feel this way? Because for me the true excitement in sport is to see the underdog win.
I take no joy in the same man winning year after year, even if he is the best, and even if he is a very pleasant fellow who does good deeds and rescues damsels from dragons in his spare time. The same goes for women, in case you were wondering.
If someone rated 200 places below the champion succeeds in knocking him out, this for me is cause for rejoicing. I am in awe, because somehow it seems the natural order has been overturned and the impossible has happened. Someone has exceeded what seemed to be their abilities.
Perhaps this is because deep down I know I have not done justice to my own abilities. I could have done much better. If I had applied myself, not been quite so lazy, I could have been very, very good… what at? I have no idea, but I’m pretty sure it’s not tennis.
And in case you think I harbour delusions of grandeur, I believe this is true of almost everyone. Brendan Foster, the former British middle distance star athlete, once said he was not the best middle distance runner in England: he was not even the best middle distance runner in Gateshead. But all those other potential stars had never given themselves the chance.
All those tennis players stuck in the lower hundreds (in the world!) have amazing skill. So do many club players. What they do not have is crazy application – the willingness to push and push and push until their skill does not just flare up now and again but remains at a scorching high level – all the time. That is what makes a champion. A work ethic. Willingness to accept punishment. But perhaps it also makes them slightly less than human.
They deserve to win, don’t they? Yes, but there is a problem for us, and it is boredom. When it begins to look as if Vettel is going to win every Formula One race in the foreseeable future, the whole competition goes off the boil. When the same man keeps winning Wimbledon, what’s the point?
We like to see the dark horse come through, late in the race, on the inside, unexpectedly. Was there ever a more exciting Olympic 800 metres than that won in 1964 by Anne Packer, a woman who had not even run an international 800 metres before, but stepped up from 400 metres at the last minute? Or the amazing finish of the outsider Dave Wottle in 1972?
That is the kind of thing that takes your breath away, not the same old winners, winning again.
It is not fair on the champions, of course, but champions have their reward: they are champions, they receive adulation and, in most sports, a great deal of money. As well as satisfaction.
As for me and my house, bring on the underdog. For we are underdogs ourselves. And we know the feeling. Or we’d like to.