Do the decent thing

Why back an underdog, asks Benjamin Markovits, if you know it's hopeless?

I went to Wimbledon for the first time this summer. I had a seat in the press rows, but it struck me, as I squeezed in, that this is an event worth paying to see. Centre court is wonderfully theatrical - a perfect stage for voyeurism, it offers a clear view of the strangely intimate and silent play of opponents. The silence took on new purpose, concentrating the minds of the spectators.

You could spot the press rows a mile away: the journalists were the only people who never applauded. Not that they were too jaded to gasp. One of the matches I saw was Roger Federer v Mario Ancic. Every game or two, Federer struck a ball with such perfect intention that the crowd laughed and clapped in disbelief. The pressmen laughed, too, but kept their hands on the ledge built specially to keep their notebooks up.

Yet disbelief seemed to be the warmest feeling Federer inspired. It's not that nobody wanted him to win; only that nobody doubted the outcome enough to root for a result. People don't root for the sun to rise. For a set, I tried to take Ancic's side: it seemed sporting to support the underdog. Sporting but hopeless: his best shots - the serve and forehand - were still a little worse than Federer's. It was like wishing for a ball to roll uphill.

Which is, I suppose, something a lot of fans know a great deal about. There isn't much morality to fandom, but there seem to be a few basic rules. It is nobler to support Man City than Man United, or the Boston Red Sox than the New York Yankees. To root for losers. It seems almost a question of basic decency, when you tune in to a match in which you have no prior interest, to pull for the guy behind.

It makes me wonder how decent I am. Soon after Wimbledon, I wasted too much of the back half of my week watching Tiger Woods win the Open. I couldn't help wanting him to win, to hold off the streaking Sergio Garcia, who had never won a major, and Chris DiMarco, whose mother had died a few weeks earlier. Of course, Woods had his own cause for commemoration - his father, Earl, who taught him the game, died this year - but that's not why I wanted him to win.

I wanted him to win, I realised, because he is better. It isn't only the underdogs who strive; the winners, by one measure at least, have striven harder. And by winning, Woods has added a little more colour to the character he hopes to grow into. Now, at the age of 30, he is just eight majors short of overtaking Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 and of becoming, in Muhammad Ali's phrase, "the greatest of all time". Of becoming, really, the guy we should never root for.

And yet we do. Tiger plays to the largest galleries and, as the sponsors know, to the biggest television audiences. It struck me that we need a phrase for this kind of fandom: for crowds that are pulling for the winner to win. Which perhaps isn't so indecent, after all. We remember our lives, at each stage, by the things that graced them: by politicians and wars; by rock songs; by lovers and diplomas and births and jobs. And, yes, by athletes, too.

When George Best died, a generation mourned him in a way that said, to those coming up behind: you should have seen us in our youth. Michael Jordan was the God of my childhood. I could hardly wish for a happier symbol of it. Those were the days, we want to be able to say, when greatness walked the earth: when Tiger Woods took on the field without his driver, and beat them playing away. When the stars win, they prove nostalgia right - years before we need it.

Hunter Davies is away

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