the underdog is the only dog

July 3, 2012 — I spent much of the morning watching the Wimbledon women’s quarterfinal match between German blondes Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki. During the match, one-time tennis starlet-turned-commentator Chris Evert said that contrast in styles makes tennis great to watch. I think she was commenting on the match at hand, but I can’t be sure because as far as I could ascertain, it was difficult to tell one player from the other. Pretty quickly, I realized that Kerber wore a visor, while Lisicki wore a headband. But it was harder to tell the difference in the wide shot. Eventually, I discovered Kerber had a pink stripe on her back.

Anyway, these two players volleyed momentum almost as often as the actual tennis ball and, of course, that made it an interesting match to watch. But what also made it compelling not only to watch, but to write about here was the perspective of the commentators.

Evert and whoever sat in the chair beside her, seemed to be positively critiquing Lisicki. They commented on her good points and criticized her bad points in much the same way that I might evaluate the Texas Rangers in a given ball game. Meanwhile, Kerber seemed to be the canvas on which the portrait of Lisicki was being painted.

As Lisicki captured the momentum of the match in the second set, Kerber became agitated and that drew comment from Evert and company. But they only remarked on Kerber’s subtle fits to illustrate how and why the crowd seemed to be gathering behind Lisicki. Now, it should be noted that Kerber was the higher-ranked player (Kerber was 8 and Lisicki was 15 if I remember that correctly, it’s honestly not even important enough to look up), and the crowd is likely to gather behind the underdog in almost any ball game (as in life).

But for much of the match, I’m sitting there in my living room watching tennis in earnest — which I do maybe once every two years — and kind of feeling sorry for Kerber. It should be noted that I hadn’t heard of either of these two German blondes before I turned on my television this morning. So I had no idea why Lisicki should be viewed in such a favorable light as if she were the star of the match.

But now I do understand it and it’s not any credit or slight to the commentators. Well, maybe it’s both. They watched and spoke about the match as it streamed into their consciousness. And since they know more than me about tennis, they directed my watching of the event. But if I had been sitting in the stands at Wimbledon, wearing headphones in order to block out the influence of the rest of the crowd, I would have drawn my own conclusion. And in the second set, with Lisicki making a noble bid to extend the match to a third set, I very likely would have formed the same opinion as the one I perceived coming from the commentators. (If I had been reporting on the match and presumably in a hurry to go for a pint at a Wimbledon pub, I certainly would have been annoyed by Lisicki’s surge in the second set, which ultimately forced a third set).

Evert and company suggested that Kerber’s body language played a role in pushing the crowd to Lisicki’s side. I only partially agree. I think the crowd’s first two priorities were to see a competitive match and to pull for the underdog. But I will say that body language could have played a five to fifteen percent role.

Some people I know don’t like Barack Obama and others didn’t like George W. Bush. So they harped on the body language or speech patterns of those two presidents. But that’s not why they liked them or didn’t like them. In that case, the only factor was Democrat vs. Republican.

I believe we all want our team to win when our team is playing. And when our team is not playing, we pull for the underdog.


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