You know, I’ve never picked up a tennis racket in my entire life.
Nor had I watched much tennis until my mother made me watch Wimbledon, in Karachi, in 2006. She wanted me to root for Rafa (Rafael Nadal), whom she adores. But I became totally mesmerised by you instead. As David Foster Wallace would later say about you,
“Just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired.”
And boy was I inspired.
Roger Federer at the O2 in London. Photo: AFP
I started following tennis for the aesthetic high of watching you play. And for the ideological high that you might become the greatest tennis player ever.
On a typical day, I’d spend an hour reading about you, and doing statistical analysis about you. And another hour watching old highlights. A quarter of my Facebook posts were about you. My phone screen showed you winning Roland Garros in 2009.
Dozing off, in between visions of Shahid Afridi mauling India in a World Cup final, I would imagine all the points in your career that I would change if I could: Match Point vs Marat Safin in Melbourne in 2005, Match Point vs Rafa in Rome in 2006, 30-0, 5-4, second set vs Juan Martin in New York in 2009 and the Break Point, fifth set vs Novak Djokovic in London in 2014.
Your relationship with Mirka became, and remains, an inspiration for my wife and me. Without my wife’s support I could never have overcome the difficult times in our five years together. So we just love, love, love the fact that Mirka has been the difference between you becoming The Greatest, and you remaining in the pack of men you surpassed.
Roger with his wife Mirka Federer. Photo: AFP
All standard stuff, really. Like thousands of other fans across the world whose lives your tennis has touched. And this doesn’t even include your philanthropy.
But sadly it’s time to say farewell. And yes, this has to do with the picture you posted holding the Indian team shirt, and the hashtag #BleedBlue, overtly signifying loyalty to India.
Before I go further, I want to say that it’s completely understandable that you would want to root for India. They are an incredible side. You’ve personally met the legend Sachin Tendulkar. It’s a very welcoming country and you were given an adoring welcome there. Heck, so was I when I visited! So I get why you would want to support India.
Roger playing with Deepika Padukone (L) and meeting Sachin Tendulkar (R). Photos: AFP
(Of course like any red-blooded Pakistani, I would want to change your mind by telling you about the invention, magic and genius that characterise our cricket. Not to mention our 72-50 lead over India in all matches.)
But no, I’m not upset that you chose to support India over Pakistan. I’m upset that you chose to support India over Pakistan, publicly. This made it seem like your Pakistani fans are expendable.
Let’s be clear. In India, posting this picture was a stroke of genius. It has thousands of comments from your Indian fans like:
“Love you Roger, I have become a bigger fan!”
It currently has more than 25,ooo Likes and 31,000 Shares. That far surpasses your previous ten posts, which had an average of 60,000 likes and 1,100 shares. It has generated tremendous goodwill for you in the largest untapped tennis market on Earth. Who wouldn’t want that?
Inevitably though, in Pakistan it had the opposite effect. After you posted the picture, I did an informal poll of the dozen biggest Pakistani Roger fans I know. All very serious fans, mind you. Two of them were not bothered by the picture. But 10 of the 12 felt seriously hurt or betrayed. Six of those 10 said you had acted “like a sell-out” and have stopped supporting you altogether.
I wanted to make sure this wasn’t just a Pakistan chip-on-shoulder about India. So I wrote to a Kiwi friend who is a Roger die-hard. And an All-Black fanatic, obviously. I asked how he would feel if you were to publicly support Australia over the All-Blacks in the Rugby World Cup. Immediately he responded:
“I’d be hurt and upset. Pissed off as well.”
This got me thinking. Suppose India’s acrimonious cricket rivals had been China instead of Pakistan. Would you or your sponsors have endorsed a public show of support for India over China? Of course not! It would have been brand suicide! The publicity gain in India would not have been worth the cost.
Worth the cost.
At its essence therefore, this public display of support for India represents a ruthless valuation of your Pakistani fans, based on their economic and brand impact. Effectively, you are saying that our feelings and opinions are acceptable collateral damage for publicity in India. That we are expendable, in a way that fans from a larger country wouldn’t be.
And the truth is, in tennis economic terms, compared to Indian fans, we Pakistani fans are indeed expendable. But hearing that truth spelled out publicly, and almost directly, by you, hurts like hell.
So, where does this leave us?
It’s widely known you are humble, kind and sensitive to a fault. I suspect that if this letter reaches you, you may wish to make amends. I hope you find a way. I’m sure a positive gesture about Pakistan will win you back many of the people whom this picture alienated.
Sadly, I won’t be one of them. I was in too deep. So this morning I deleted over a hundred Roger posts from my Facebook wall as well as the photo collection I had painstakingly put together. I also donated my RF cap and my collection of books about you.
I will always respect you, love your game and wish you success. I just won’t be along with you for the ride.
This post was originally published on The Express Tribune blogs page