Federer’s biggest fan? Roger that!
Kolkata's Sunita Sigtia claims to be the tennis player's most ardent supporter. Here's how she proves it
Sunita Sigtia makes a bold claim: She is Roger Federer’s biggest fan in India. “Definitely," she says, without hesitating.
Kolkata-based Sigtia, who is in her 40s, marshals the track record to make her case: an impressive and crazy collection of anecdotes that might qualify for a “Fandom Hall of Fame". She takes no holidays except to watch Federer play in Dubai, Switzerland, and at Wimbledon. She requests those giving her gifts to give her cash, so that the money can be funnelled into the annual tennis breaks.
She once left her nephew’s wedding early to catch a flight to watch the Swiss play in the International Premier Tennis League in Delhi. She has done the ritual invocations, the Hanuman chalisas.
During a low spell in Federer’s career some years ago, she sought counsel from a guru she often approaches for personal advice. He told her she needed to get Federer to wear something made of emerald.
“I said I cannot do possibly do that," she says over the phone, laughing. “But I managed to find an emerald Ganesha for him, and I gifted it to him at a tournament in the UAE in the beginning of 2012."
Federer won Wimbledon that year. “I have my beliefs," she says. “And I do it for him."
This week, she would have joined a group of Federer “superfans"—a consortium of a few dozen-odd people from around the world who travel to Wimbledon every year to watch him play. “United by Roger", as the group is known, was formalized last year, springing from an earlier online fan group on his official page. The online fan group was disbanded in 2016, but the new collective perseveres, with Sigtia as its only Indian member.
Sigtia, who has a textile business, first visited Wimbledon in 2008 with her sister. It was her first trip to the UK and an intense initiation into the rituals of Wimbledon: camping on the outer grounds all night as part of the storied queue, waking up early to shuffle through the pearly gates, braving rain and more rain. After two days, her sister refused to put herself through it, leaving Sigtia on her own.
She felt goosebumps each time she walked into the grounds and soaked in the atmosphere of Murray Mound during matches she couldn’t enter Centre Court for.
“Once you watch him live, you get hooked," she says. “There’s no turning back."
She hasn’t turned back. Every year, Sigtia and other members of the travelling church of Roger queue together for tickets all night for two weeks, or however long he lasts in the tournament, angling for good seats at great prices, a tradition they have long mastered the intricacies of.
She recalls one particular match from last year in the consistent state of elation she maintains through the conversation. She remembers being hunched close in the first few rows, her adrenalin level spiking.
“It’s been 10 years now, but it still feels like the first time each time," she says. “The gooseflesh when you walk in, it happens to me even now." She pauses as she searches for words, then gives up. “I cannot explain it."
For years, Sigtia, born into a family of sports fanatics, had followed tennis, tracking the careers of former greats like Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. The university-level badminton champion was first baptized into the cult of Federer around 2003, two years after he defeated Pete Sampras in Wimbledon in his typically fleet-footed and graceful style, serving notice of things to come.
“Once Roger came on the scene and started dominating, it was only Roger," says Sigtia. “You don’t even look at any other player."
This will mark the 11th consecutive year of her pilgrimage. Because the charm of Centre Court never fades. “Once you see him play live and if you see him play live in Wimbledon, on the grass, every other player is nowhere near," she says.
Federer has won here eight times, with the smart money predicting a ninth victory next month. Over the years, fans have developed a ritual where their good luck messages are collected and placed in a Red Envelope, and one of them is picked to hand it to Federer at every tournament. Sigtia has been an emissary of the RE, as it’s known, more than once.
Fans who chase together and cheer together also cry together. When Federer loses, it casts a pall on the group, with Sigtia describing its heartbreak-like symptoms: a pervading listlessness, loss of appetite, sleepless nights. “It’s depressing," she says. “Especially when you see him lose live. But it’s nice to have each other as fans to hold on to."
Like any dedicated groupie, Sigtia has the tattoos to show for it: She got an RF logo on her back shortly after he lost to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon 2010, and a design of his signature on her right arm after last year’s late-career renaissance with the Australian Open title. Federer has seen them, and approved, she claims. Eventually, she thinks she might add the total number of Grand Slams he finishes with.
At 36, retirement is imminent, with Federer having entered his autumnal years. “He is a human being," she says, of the potential end of his playing days. “I am cool about it."
Unsurprisingly, she is also decidedly cool about old foe Rafael Nadal. “I am not interested in the French Open, obviously," she says. “I have seen him play and I don’t like him."
Now Sigtia has set up SiiRF—Some Immensely Inspired Roger (Federer) Fans—a non-profit inspired by Federer to help poor, talented athletes, an organization she officially launched on his birthday last August. Besides that, there is the glorious final act of his career to look forward to, counting every victory as a blessing to be savoured, not a statistic to be presumed.
“I am on cloud 20," says Sigtia, referring to his total Slam collection. “It can only get better."