Why We Love the Almost-Champions

Recently I entered a discussion on Twitter regarding Elena Dementieva, after I noticed a question being posed: “Why does she inspire waterworks?” For the purpose of this blog, I will translate that question to: “Why do people love her?”

It’s an interesting question, why we love the players we love, and one that is particularly tricky when it comes to players who aren’t Serena Williams or Roger Federer. By which I mean, players who aren’t the dominant force in their era. The simple answer to why Williams, Federer, Nadal, Graf etc. have such loyal and passionate fan bases is because everyone loves a Champion, everyone loves seeing people break records and do the seemingly impossible. Everyone loves saying “X more titles and (s)he’ll be the greatest OF ALL TIME” because it feels nice to have backed that, to be present for its birth, and to fearfully anticipate a day when an even greater being walks the hallowed courts.

So what of Dementieva, who peaked with an Olympic gold but never managed to get her hands on a Grand Slam trophy? What of Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, who has been loved by fanatics and casual tennis fans alike for his years of service? Nadia Petrova? Tommy Haas? What makes these particular players so adored amongst the dozens in their generation who fought but never conquered?

My theory is this: As much as we love a Champion, we are even more irresistibly drawn to an Almost-Champion.

Elena Dementieva was among the first tennis players to whom I was a true fan. Dementieva brought me to the sport–which is, I think, a justifiably religious way of describing it. I was transfixed. I often heard commentators describe her as having the perfect body for tennis–tall, with a strong core and long solid limbs. She had terrifyingly brilliant groundstrokes off both wings, she moved with speed and ease and she always wore her emotions on her sleeve but rarely resorted to self-damaging histrionics. There was just one problem…

The serve.

Dementieva had one of the worst serves that has ever graced the professional game. In cinematic studies, we call this the fatal flaw, and every great tragic hero has one. I’ve often thought tennis has an unusually high number of fans from the world of acting, and I think it’s because the sport is peculiarly narrative in nature–there’s no local, regional or national team whose sporting legacy will exist beyond the failure or success of individuals. It’s all or nothing. You get your tennis life, you overcome your fatal flaw…or, you know, you don’t.

It is this that made watching Dementieva break-back time after time so compelling. It was this that made watching her slice serve land 3 feet wide so frustrating. And there’s a difference between the frustration of seeing an Almost-Champion such as Dementieva lose out on success and watching, say, Richard Gasquet, who has been consistently good his whole career but never really in the conversation at the end of the day. Elena Dementieva REALLY could have done it.

All of this has me wondering who the Almost-Champions of this generation will be. It’s an impossible question to answer, although there are names I’d comfortably eliminate immediately: Simona Halep, for instance, whose fatal flaw I struggle to find no matter how many times I look back at the script. Aga Radwanska is a scary candidate for an Almost-Champion, only because it would be such a pity, but then that’s the way with Almost-Champions. Aga’s certainly not BETTER than Dementieva was, but then nor is two-time grand slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, or indeed Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli.

Or, perhaps, as we’re all prone to do with heroes of the past, I’ve just remembered a Dementieva who is better than she truly was. The problem with Almost-Champions is that it’s hard to ever separate them from the emotions you felt watching them play. A little bit of me, like many tennis fans, still feels the same hunger to see Dementieva lift a major trophy.

The movie hasn’t end how I’d hoped; Bond hasn’t killed the villain, Sandra Bullock still floats out in space.

So why do we love our Dementievas? Our doomed astronauts?

Amelie Mauresmo is now a retired two-time slam champion, but for a long time she too was the Almost-Champion, and somebody who inspired tears and frustration. And then, in the final of Wimbledon 2006, she turned her back to the court, and she roared. In that moment a world of tennis fans felt Mauresmo screaming down the wall that dared to keep blocking her path to victory. She turned back to the court and defeated nemesis Justine Henin, finally silencing her critics.

It’s that roar. That roar is what keeps us coming back for the Almost-Champions, for the challengers, for the champions-in- waiting.

We’re instinctively drawn to watch the walls crumble.

Andrew can be found in the mountains of Switzerland, watching tennis and trying not to eat too much Swiss cheese. You can follow him on twitter @BackSwings

3 Responses

  1. Matt Vidakovic
    Matt Vidakovic August 8, 2014 at 7:57 am |

    Really nice write up – I am also enamored by the Almost Champions…And I remember not truly believing Dementieva never won a GS.

  2. Peg
    Peg August 8, 2014 at 8:59 am |

    Well observed/pondered. This reminds me of Lendl eventually getting a grip on his “allergy” to grass, but the subsequent years of watching him still not winning Wimbledon. (Not really Almost-Championitis, but perhaps a cousin to it, like the wondering if Federer would win RG before it happened.)

  3. J.
    J. August 8, 2014 at 4:22 pm |

    Shvedova…has everything but gets giddy.

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