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You might say tennis is an individual sport and Bernard Tomic didn’t technically let anyone down at Wimbledon the other day. Except he did. The sport and the fans. © Getty Images

When you’re playing sport at the highest level, you are doing it for yourself first. You have to, if you want to be driven enough to succeed against others who are as talented, as ferociously committed to excellence, as capable of turning a one per cent advantage into a demolition win.

But once you do it for yourself, who do you play for? For country maybe in team sports. For your team-mates, your support staff, the men and women who have your back. For your family and close ones certainly. But also, I think, for the fan.

I’ve not had the good fortune of playing any sport at any level close to the national or international – you must either have the talent, or a father who runs a cricket board as a fiefdom and lets you break records as captain even with a batting average of 28.76 in first-class cricket over 15 years – to do that. Negligently, fate did not give me either.

But if you think about it, the greatest investment made by anyone in sport is by the fan. They provide the guaranteed eyeballs that make multi-nationals fork over top dollar. They provide the bums on seats that give a sporting contest atmosphere. They sigh with their heroes, cry with them, sometimes they wish they could die with them. They give the most visible motivation to lift that much extra – witness Virat Kohli’s constant exhortations to spectators across the length and breadth of India during the home season, and how stadiums responded to him.

The contract between sportsperson and fan is a somewhat symbiotic one. When tens of thousands are chanting your name you feel they belong to you. When the performer pulls off something special in front of packed stands you feel he belongs to the multitude.

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Deliberately under-performing in elite sport is never okay. There are other lines though – more blurred, or grey – about what fans should feel they are legitimately owed. © Getty Images

Where does that line end? Where does the athlete stop being ‘yours’? At what point does a fan have a legitimate grouse with how things have gone for his player, his team?

If I had tuned in to watch Bernard Tomic lose to Mischa Zverev in the first round of Wimbledon 2017, I would have felt legitimately ripped off. Tomic said he was ‘bored’ on court after losing 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. He was swivelling in his chair to emphasise his complete lack of concern as he said those words, laughing derisively. Lack of concern for fans who had paid to watch him, for those who would view this clip, for those who would read those words written up.

The contract between sportsperson and fan is a somewhat symbiotic one. When tens of thousands are chanting your name you feel they belong to you. When the performer pulls off something special in front of packed stands you feel he belongs to the multitude. Where does that line end? Where does the athlete stop being ‘yours’? At what point does a fan have a legitimate grouse with how things have gone for his player, his team?

Greg Baum has done a more effective evisceration of the embarrassment that is Tomic than anyone could ever do, and it was almost worth it going through his charade to read it. Remember this is a player who once reversed his racket, holding it by the head, when down on match point because he just couldn’t be bothered.

You might say tennis is an individual sport and Tomic didn’t technically let anyone down. Except he did. The sport and the fans. There is an unspoken contract between fan and athlete: “I will brave weather, ticket prices and atrocious food to come and watch you. You must give me your best.”

When someone like Tomic rubs your face in it, it’s that much more unpleasant, but deliberately under-performing in elite sport is never okay. There are other lines though – more blurred, or grey – about what fans should feel they are legitimately owed.

For instance, is it okay that Kohli has had a problem with Anil Kumble and thus ensured that a coach who oversaw the most remarkably successful year in Indian cricket has had to walk away? Discarding the purely emotional reaction to a high-profile falling out, what is a reasonable fan entitled to expect?

Anil Kumble, Virat Kohli

There may well have been problems with Kumble’s method, but the onus is on Kohli to explain what those were, because followers of the game are entitled to that much. © AFP

I would submit the following:
1. The team is ultimately the captain’s. Unless the captain, by his own performance, doesn’t command a place in the side, it is he who is more ‘valuable’ in a sense, than any other. Therefore, if he cannot work with an individual, that person will have to go. That is reasonable enough.
2. But – and this is a big but – when the above involves the departure of someone who has not only had great success but is also a legendary player, some explanation is needed as to what went wrong. I am not for a minute suggesting that it is impossible that Kumble made any mistakes as coach. A team can win when it’s unhappy, it can win when there are serious differences, it can win because players are professional enough and talented enough to put that aside on the field. And the coach may have had minimal contribution. But, and this is key, we don’t know this.What’s there on the outer is that Kumble took over as coach, was meticulous, analytical and planned as he has always been. He inherited a good team. That good team delivered great results. When, after that, he is all but asked to leave, is an Indian cricket fan entitled to ask: Why? You can ask a successful coach who is also a legend to quit, but you better have a damned good reason, and please let me know the reason.

When fans invest money, time and emotions in a sport to make it what it is, they become stakeholders. They cannot demand MS Dhoni hit a six when they want him to. But they can expect a tennis player to give it his all on the court. And they can also expect a revered captain to give them a sound enough reason why an equally revered coach had to leave.

Kohli was right to talk of the ‘sanctity of the dressing room’ when refusing to divulge any more. But does it strike anyone that this same sanctity wasn’t really all that respected when there was a flood of leaks about the captain’s unhappiness with the coach from before the Champions Trophy even started? About a month before Kumble’s resignation note made official what was already public? Where did those reports come from? In a press conference, Kohli alleged it was imagination by journalists who were trying to earn a livelihood. If that is true then those who wrote those reports should quit journalism immediately and make their fortunes on the stock market for being able to imagine such a specific event into existence.

Again, it is important to note that there may well have been problems with Kumble’s method that didn’t gel well with perhaps this particular bunch of Indian players. But the onus is on Kohli to explain what those were, because followers of the game are entitled to that much.

When fans invest money, time and emotions in a sport to make it what it is, they become stakeholders. They cannot demand MS Dhoni hit a six when they want him to. But they can expect a tennis player to give it his all on the court. And they can also expect a revered captain to give them a sound enough reason why an equally revered coach had to leave.