To sports legends and loyalists

"I’d like to congratulate Rafa on an amazing comeback. I would have been happy to lose, too, to be honest, (my) comeback was perfect as it was. Tennis is a tough sport, there are no draws but if there was going to be one I would have been very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa."

~ Roger Federer, 2017 Australian Open Champion

The previous month was a perfect reminiscence of my childhood. Having grown up idolising the Indian cricket team of the middle/late 2000s and the epic rivalry between Federer and Nadal, it was heartening to witness sporting performances that I had never hoped I will ever again.

With India struggling at 25/3 in the second ODI against England, Yuvraj and Dhoni walked in at number 4 and 5 respectively. And just like they used to do it some ten odd years back, they steered the Indian innings to stability playing risk-free cricket before unleashing the big shots towards the end of the innings. They stitched together a mammoth partnership of 256 runs in the process.

The tennis giants, on the other hand, competed against each other for the Australian Open 2017 title—their first meeting in a Grand Slam final since 2011.

At a time when age is catching up with these stars of yesteryears, to make comebacks and put together such strong displays and remind the world why they are referred to as ‘legends’ was truly incredible. While everyone rejoiced and appreciated their efforts, the loyalists heaved a sigh of relief.

Unlike others who take some interest in sports, the loyalists are not affected by fads. They are a rare breed who painstakingly follow the game to find themselves in someone or some team. Once they do, they unwaveringly stick by the side of their favourites at all times. The game then becomes a heavy emotional investment for them where a good performance lifts their mood and a bad one destroys it. Sports and athletes mean much more to them than they being mere source of entertainment.

It is tough for them to see their stars’ or teams’ downfall. I know the feeling. The same stars who have inspired you and millions of other people with their hard work, grit and determination, who have pursued excellence all their life and been at the pinnacle of success in their respective sports, the same people who were once glorified by one and all, become a pale shadow of their true selves.

While the loyalists don’t ever stop supporting them, the general sentiment changes drastically. The same stars become a butt of jokes and ridicule, people constantly talk about how they are no longer competent, how they’ve become careless and how they don’t work hard enough. But that is rarely the case. In fact, their desire to be back at their best exceeds our imagination. And when they come out and perform like Yuvraj, Dhoni, Federer and Nadal did last month, the loyalists experience a sense of quiet calmness. Of course, they are happy but more so there is a feeling of vindication. It is because just like the athletes, they never stopped believing in the abilities of their stars. For them too, it is not over until it is over.

Sports loyalty is a trait that is unfortunately on a decline. Being a loyalist is a tough task. To support something devotedly over a sustained period of time requires one to be innately optimistic and indifferent to how the world reacts when the going gets tough. But it is totally worth it. There is always something to look forward to and the belief pays. When that elusive comeback performance comes, the feeling that it brings is incomparable and indescribable.

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