Thursday, June 23, 2011

Such tension when your faves collide

Tennis is a sport that seems to demand that you pick favorites. At least that’s how it has always seemed to me. Back in the day you were either a Navratilova fan or you preferred the frilliness of Chris Evert. You either liked the rebel Agassi or you went for the more sedate Pete Sampras. It was for a long time impossible to be a fan of both Seles and Graf. Hingis and Venus fans angrily squared off on message boards.

And for years I was fine with this dichotomy. Until along came a player named Rafael Nadal. He was so refreshingly different. The powerful topspin, the lethal lefty forehand, the swiftness of movement, and most of all the mental determination. Rafa played tennis like no one I ever remembered. It was easy to become a fan.

And my love for him would have remained unequivocal had he not happened to become the nemesis of my darling Federer. And just like that I found myself forced to choose between two favorites. How to choose when your heart wants both possible outcomes? How to resolve this emotional conflict?

This is how I felt when Na Li faced Sabine Lisicki today. I woke up this morning asking myself to be honest about which player I really wanted to win. On the one hand, I wanted Na Li to go deep in the draw, to prove that she has what it takes to have a year as impressive as Djokovic. On the other hand, having discovered Lisicki at Charleston two years ago, I never got over my crush. I like Big Babe tennis. I like players who go bold. I like big serves and bigger forehands. I like feisty and spunk. Lisicki has all these in spades.

But for Lisicki to win, my precious Na Li would have to lose. And that I was not emotionally ready for. Perhaps this is why tennis fans tend to pick a side and remain solidly there. It’s emotionally too exhausting to have to choose between favorites. We humans are not designed to handle such cognitive dissonance. We rejoice when our faves win. We are devastated when they lose. But both joy and devastation are clear feelings. Confusion is not.

Cognitive dissonance refers to the emotional confusion and discomfort we experience when we want two conflicting outcomes at the same time. It’s the feeling I feel when Rafa and Fed play each other – I want both men to win but neither to lose. Cognitive dissonance is the experience of wanting opposites when both options really matter.

I first mentioned cognitive dissonance on this blog a few weeks ago when writing about the reported end of the world on May 21st. When the world continued to lurch along, imperfectly, on May 22nd, this created cognitive dissonance for followers of aging preacher Harold Camping. Was their leader wrong? Or was the Rapture just delayed?

If you endorsed the latter notion, you found a way to resolve the dissonance. Because according to Leon Festinger, the psychologist who first noted this phenomenon, dissonance can only be resolved in one of three ways. We can change our beliefs. We can change our behavior. Or we can find a new way of thinking about the situation.

So when one of the ESPN talking heads picked Lisicki to win this morning, I first found myself grinning with happiness. And then I immediately remembered that for that to happen, Na Li would have to lose. My discomfort did not resolve for most of the match which was close, exciting, and wonderful. When Na Li finally went up 5-3, 40-15 in the third set, I thought that there was no way she would lose. And then Lisicki stormed back and so did my emotions. Back and forth I went, mentally justifying both outcomes.

When Lisicki finally emerged victorious, I consoled myself with the reminder of Na Li’s struggles after her Aussie finals. Clearly I wasn’t a fool for picking Lisicki because after all, Na Li did go on to a five-match losing streak after Australia, didn’t she? So surely this loss following the French was not entirely unexpected? Besides, Na Li probably needed the extra rest to prepare for winning the US Open. And really I wouldn’t mind seeing Wozniacki and Lisicki bounce each other again if they happened to meet in the quarters at Wimbledon. And just like that my cognitive dissonance was fully resolved.


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