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The Blog recently read a terrific sports book that has little to do with specific teams and athletes. Michael Mandelbaum, a prominent professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins is the author of The Meaning of Sports, a smart and perceptive book that plumbs the mystery of "what it means to be fan." Which is to say, why do reasonable, well-adjusted people -- you know, like us -- invest so much time and emotion and passion watching the sweaty and genetically gifted play games?
The Blog was thinking about Mandelbaum's book while watching Lou Noritz in action last week at the Tennis Masters event in Toronto. "Dr. Lou," as he's known on the tennis firmament, is about as committed a sports fan as you'll find. A retired Manhattan postal worker, Noritz, 59, was left what he calls "a substantial inheritance" by his late mother. For 10 years now, he has chosen to exhaust some of it by traveling the tennis tour. "I never played tennis growing up," he says. "I was a softball pitcher. My career record was 1,422-780. But I have an uncanny ability to understand the tennis mind, the psychology. That's why the players like me."
As you have likely gathered by now, there are a lot of, um, eccentricities, to Dr. Lou. He lives in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn with 40 animals, including rabbits, guinea pigs, lizards and chinchillas. (Since you asked, neighbors tend to the menagerie when he's in Melbourne or Memphis or Miami.) He carries with him a laminated card that looks like a bad frat house fake I.D. claiming he works for the ATP. No, not the Association of Tennis Professionals, a.k.a. the men's tour. Noritz's affiliation is with the American Tennis Psychologists, an organization with a membership of one. "I just got a promotion," he says. "My new title is Doubles Support Specialist."
What is perhaps Noritz's most unusual trait is also his most endearing: He roots like hell for the guys who need it most. It's not that he doesn't like Roger Federer or Andy Roddick. "It's that those guys ... well, what do they need me for? They always win." So, if you're looking for the biggest men's tennis fan, avoid the stadium courts and the tournament finals. You'll find him instead in the hinterlands -- on those back courts where guys outside the top 50 grind it out in obscurity -- supporting players with rankings in the triple digits. Last week, Noritz left Toronto on Friday morning so he could make it to the next tour stop in Cincinnati in time for the qualifying rounds.
Noritz's fandom comes with terms and conditions. He promises to be there for any player who plies him with a guest pass. (In Toronto, his badge indicated he was a guest of Austrian doubles specialist, Julian Knowle.) Otherwise, he trolls the back courts for players who have been nice to him in the past or whom he thinks need their spirits bolstered. Xavier Malisse, a lavishly talented but emotionally fragile Belgian, is currently high on Noritz's list. So are the Israeli players, "my Jewish boys," he calls them.
Noritz estimates his fandom is good for a "five to nine percent" boost. If true, his going rate of a smile or some other form of acknowledgement and the odd guest pass is a bargain. "I can only do so much, but I keep them from getting down," he says. "I don't do grips or techniques. I don't want to be a coach. But I have an uncanny ability to read the players' minds and say the right thing at the right time. Even if they don't hear me, just knowing I'm there is a help."
On the first day of action in Toronto, Dr. Lou clutched the court-side rail tightly while cheering on Alex Bogomolov, Jr., a feisty American who has yet to gain much traction on the ATP -- the real one, that is. Noritz clapped. He pumped his fist when Bogomolov won critical points. He shouted prosaic lines of encouragement like, "Way to bang 'em, baby." When Bogomolov prevailed over Croatia's Ivo Karlovic in a tight match, Noritz unfurled an American flag and brandished it for all to see. Bogomolov flashed Noritz a double thumbs-up as he left the court. A smile formed above Noritz's goatee.
The flags, by the way, are another Noritz hallmark. In the backpack he totes, he keeps a collection of flags from various players' countries of origins. He figures, not unreasonably, that the players are often thousand of miles away from home and appreciate the gesture. It gives them a small sense of connection and place and meaning.
And in the end, isn't that what all fans want at some level, to feel as though they are part of something bigger? Noritz started in on this point, explaining how kindly most players treat him and, how from his perch on the back courts he feels he is not just in the tennis world but of the tennis world. He stopped abruptly when he realized that the doubles team of Andy Ram and JonathanErlich had been moved to another court and were midway through their match. "Find me later," he yelled, walking away briskly while rifling through his backpack for the Israeli flag.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.