Novak’s Quest

I tend to be very wordy on this blog, especially when talking about my favorite athlete, Novak Djokovic. But today I have a thought that won’t leave my mind, and I feel like shouting it from the rooftops. Hopefully it won’t be quite as wordy as usual! Here goes:

Novak Djokovic does not need to win Roland Garros this year. He WILL win it before he retires.

This, of course, is opinion, not fact. I could be wrong. But deep down, I don’t think I am.

Just look at his career. Need I remind you that he came of tennis age in the era of arguably the two greatest tennis players of all time? And he wasn’t alone, either. He had with him the Jo-Wilfried Tsongas and the Tomas Berdychs and the Richard Gasquets and even the Andy Murrays and Stan Wawrinkas. All of these players are just as talented as Novak. But only two of these have won Slam titles, and even they have won not nearly as many as has Novak.

All of these men, aside from Novak, Stan, and Andy, would probably say, “Well, I was unfortunate to play during the era of the greatest of all time.” (And it could be argued that Stan felt this way at first and was able to successfully overcome it as well.) But only one mounted his own challenge and achieved what many probably thought was impossible: achieving the #1 ranking in the Fedal era.

Novak’s career is all the more impressive when you see that he has actually needed to mount new challenges three times already. The first challenge was to win his first Slam title, which he did as a 20-year-old in 2008. The second challenge was to achieve the number one ranking (and win another Slam, and win Slams other than the Australian Open), which he did in 2011. The third challenge was to regain his mental edge and start winning Slam finals again, after a painful series of finals losses, which he was able to do in a very big way in 2015.

Is it possible that Roland Garros is just the kind of challenge that Novak must feel excited to overcome? I think that’s very possible. Because one characteristic that has typified Novak’s career is his determination. When he faces an obstacle, he is willing to do whatever he can to overcome it.

I don’t really know what took Novak from US Open finalist in 2007 to Australian Open champion in 2008. It could have been as easy as “my time has come,” but I doubt that, especially considering that Novak had to take out Roger Federer (his conqueror in New York, don’t forget) in order to win that championship. I think it’s more likely that Novak just needed to climb over that barrier of belief, to become fully confident that he really could defeat the mighty Fed.

We all know, of course, what led to Novak’s glorious 2011; the one-two punch of a whole new diet (expunged of troublesome gluten, among other things) and a new confidence borne of his assistance in winning Davis Cup for Serbia at the end of 2010. It sounds easy enough in retrospect — change your diet, regain a winning edge — but if you’ve ever tried to lose weight, or had to cut an allergen from your diet, or had to change your diet for some other reason, you know that it isn’t the easiest thing to do. I imagine that for someone who has to travel the way Novak does, it would be even more challenging.

Then there was the next couple of years, when Novak won a Slam a year but missed out on a whole lot of other Slams in which he reached finals (or, at the least, semifinals) but couldn’t seem to claim the big prize. He lost his #1 ranking a few times (once to Federer, once to Nadal), but overall he was #1 more than he wasn’t. When he hired Boris Becker at the end of 2013, a lot of fans and experts couldn’t understand why. There seemed to be nothing wrong with his game, he was still winning Slams and reaching finals… why would he make a change?

The reason is because Novak is a perfectionist. His career results had shown him that he could overcome any obstacle. And he wasn’t satisfied with being #1 a lot of the time and winning a Slam a year. He thought he could do more and win more. He believed he had ceded mental ground in losing so many Slam finals, and he was willing to do whatever he could to change that. So hiring Boris, as we all now know, had to do with regaining his mental edge.

What does all this have to do with Roland Garros? A couple of things. Number one, in my opinion it goes against a rapidly spreading assumption that Novak will “never have a better chance” to win it than this year, what with Nadal out of the tournament. I actually think Novak might have had a better chance of winning, had Nadal been in it still, because he would have been ready to mount the challenge of beating the King of Clay.

(I’m not saying Novak has no chance of winning this year, of course. Just that Novak seems to be at his toughest when he feels the challenge is greatest.)

Number two is related. Novak’s path may seem easier with Rafa out of the tournament, but the idea that Novak will never win it if he doesn’t win it this year is ludicrous. Is Novak suddenly going to become terrible on clay? Is Novak going to give up trying to win RG if he doesn’t win it this year? No, and no. Yes, Novak is getting older, and yes, traditionally he is approaching that magical age in which male tennis players find it very difficult to win Slams. But Novak has proven he is not the typical male tennis player, in many ways. He is determined, focused, a perfectionist. He takes scrupulous care of his body and has done a decent (to say the least) job of staying fit and healthy.

All this is to say that there is no Novak quite so dangerous than a Novak on a quest. And I cannot imagine Novak Djokovic retiring without having achieved a quest that he set his mind and soul and body into achieving. And that is why I believe that Novak Djokovic will win Roland Garros… someday.

Raymond Moore, Novak Djokovic, Equal Prize Money and the Beauty of Sports

So this morning, I have thoughts. I’ve tweeted those thoughts here and there sporadically, but I feel like I need to have one place to coherently pull together those thoughts. I also feel like I need to take some time and hash out those thoughts, as well, or else it’s going to become a disjointed mess.

I’m going to start off by saying that frankly I’m incredibly annoyed that I have to have these thoughts at all. I want to kick Raymond Moore (CEO of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells) in a very sensitive spot for opening this can of worms in the ugliest and nastiest way possible in the first place.

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The Beloved Novak Djokovic

There has been an awful lot written over the past 6 months (since he won his 8th Slam title at the Australian Open, I think) about why Novak Djokovic isn’t “as beloved as Federer and Nadal.” Or even, “Why Novak Djokovic should be more beloved.”

For some reason, I keep reading these articles, as if they will ease the nagging frustration in the back of my head and in the bottom of my heart. And while many of these articles make good points, more often than not they still leave me feeling vaguely annoyed and frustrated.

I think it’s because these articles seem to miss a point that I keep hoping (subconsciously at least) they will make.

Novak Djokovic IS beloved.

Here is where certain people whom I won’t name immediately pipe up with “but he isn’t as beloved as Roger Federer!!!!/Rafael Nadal!!!!” To which I can only say, “So what?” I don’t know about you, but I don’t tend to go through life feeling horrifically depressed because I’m not as beloved as someone who is adored by millions, if not hundreds of millions, all over the world.

If all of us felt that way, we would be living in a very depressed world.

But Novak has many very devoted fans. I am proud to count myself as one of them. I follow many others on Twitter. His Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter posts get tons of replies, likes, RTs/RGs, shares, and so on. If you’ve ever tried to take a look at his Twitter mentions, you’ll see that they move at approximately the rate of Justin Bieber’s. Ask any fan who’s attempted to get a reply from Novak. It’s not easy because so many tweet him.

What’s more, Novak is very aware that he has tons of devoted fans. Why? Because they congregate at every tournament he plays. I like to RT photos and video clips of Novak mobbed by fans and signing autographs and taking photos for hours because I am trying to fight this “Novak is not loved” narrative that is so very persistent in the media. I don’t have to work very hard at it, either.

Many will be quick to point out that if Novak were beloved, he would get more crowd support during tournaments. I would like to be quick to point out that he gets his fair share of crowd support. Is it as large as Federer’s? No. Is it is as large as Nadal’s? I’d say it is, and in fact, if you watch a Nadal/Djokovic match played anywhere but in Spain, you’ll find a pretty evenly divided crowd.

There are even parts of the world where Novak has universal crowd support, believe it or not, like China and Italy. I admit that I have no idea why these two very different countries adore Novak, but I have even less idea why they wouldn’t. Novak is, after all, incredibly personable. I find that the only people who disagree with this statement are those who have a vested interest in maintaining that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are the most popular tennis players in the world, and no one can possibly touch them.

But Novak is good-humored; is humble despite his achievements, yet confident in his abilities and his desire to continue to be the best and win; is deeply invested in fair play (witness how many times he has conceded points to opponents when he feels calls have wrongly been made in his favor); is utterly willing to be goofy; loves pretty much everyone and is incapable of holding a grudge; wears his heart on his sleeve; invites everyone to be a part of his life experiences, both on and off the court; and is also a devoted philanthropist.

Certain segments of the tennis fan community will now say “but…” and bring up some misdemeanor from his past. To which I’ll gladly say: yes, you are absolutely right. Novak Djokovic is not perfect. GASP.

Guess what? Neither is Roger Federer. GASP. Or Rafael Nadal. GASP. All three of them have, at times, not been on their best behavior. And I’ll tell you something else: at times, I haven’t been on my best behavior either. And neither have you.

But if you look into tennis’ recent past, you’ll find behavior that is truly appalling — nothing like the minor misdemeanors that Novak, Roger, and Rafa have committed. Like, truly horrific things. Look at some of the antics of John McEnroe, or Jimmy Connors, or Ilie Nastase, or Ion Tiriac, or any number of lesser-known tennis players from the 1970s and 1980s. They threw tantrums. They cursed out linespeople and umpires. They intimidated officials and opponents.

I don’t usually enjoy playing the comparison game, but I do so now to raise the point that taken alone, the behavior of Novak Djokovic, overall, looks quite good. But compared to the behavior of some of the dark princes of tennis’ past, his looks downright saintly.

Meanwhile, I think one thing is helping Novak become increasingly more beloved: he inspires. I have long felt it difficult to be inspired by a player to whom everything seemed to come too easily. I’m referring to Roger Federer here, although in his twilight years, his struggle to remain relevant (and his frequent success at doing so) have been a lot more inspiring. (Some Federer fan should write about what it means to them to have Federer continue to contend for major titles at age 33. I’d love to read that.)

But nothing has come easily for Novak Djokovic. At times he might make tennis seem too easy because he’s so good, but if you look at his career on the whole, you realize just how remarkable it has been. He came to prominence during a time when Federer and Nadal were gobbling up major titles like they were Pac-Man pellets. Andy Roddick actually put this quite succintly during Novak’s Wimbledon quarterfinal against Marin Cilic: he could have been content to be the number 3 player in the world, recognize that the top 2 men in the game were just too good, make a lot of money and reach the quarterfinals and semifinals of major tournaments and maybe even the occasional final.

No one would have faulted him for this. But that wasn’t enough for Novak. He had a goal when he was a young boy to be number 1 in the world and win Wimbledon, and by golly, that’s what he was going to do. He revamped everything – his diet, his fitness regimen. He made the bad parts of his game better. He made the good parts of his game great. And he made the great parts of his game sublime.

And then he did the hardest part. He learned to control his emotions. Some people in the world have natural emotional control; they do not ever become either very positive or very negative. Then there are those of us who have wildly swinging emotions. I am one of those people! Novak is another. I see my own wildly swinging emotions and know it is very difficult to rein them in, and I see Novak’s wildly swinging emotions and am in absolute awe at how well he can rein them in and redirect them.

I think this is why Novak Djokovic is very well loved indeed, and it’s why even to this day he continues to make more fans.

I know I’m fighting a losing battle here, but could we maybe stop with the “why isn’t Novak Djokovic more beloved?” or “why doesn’t Novak Djokovic get the adulation of Federer or Nadal?” In the long run, it really doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that Novak Djokovic is beloved.

His fans know this. And Novak knows it, too.

Postscript: This post touched a nerve with a LOT of my fellow Novak Djokovic fans! You can find a collection of the responses I received from them here.

Texts to my Husband: My Thoughts During Novak Djokovic’s QF win over Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros

I knew it was going to be tense. So I decided that, for the sanity of myself and everyone who follows me on Twitter, to stay mostly off of Twitter while I watched Novak play Rafa.

But at the same time, I knew I needed an outlet. So I sent a whole slew of texts to my poor but patient husband, Eric.

In retrospect, I find this kind of amusing. So I thought I’d screenshot our texts (which, let’s be real, are pretty well dominated by me) for the amusement of all.

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And there you have it. Apologies to Rafa fans. But at least now you know the torture he puts fans of Novak Djokovic through. 😉

Road to Redemption: The Peculiar Case of Neil Harman

A few days ago, my new tennis blogging friend Matt Zemek wrote what I’m sure wasn’t intended to be eerily prescient, but wound up being so anyway: a column about “sports forgiveness,” or how much we are/can be/should be willing to forgive an athlete’s misdeeds.

I found it an intriguing little piece, absorbing and thought-provoking. And when the news came out about the plagiarism of Neil Harman, writer for the London Times, I soon thought of Matt’s column.

The news first broke on the Changeover blog. The sporting website Deadspin expanded on the story. Then, finally, came Ben Rothenberg’s article on Slate, detailing just how far and deep and wide went the plagiarism (as well as the knowledge of it).

As I often do when tennis-related news breaks, I spent a lot of time perusing my tennis timeline on Twitter, reading the reactions of others. I saw, first, a lot of reactions just like mine, which can be represented thusly:

1. Complete and utter shock. “Neil Harman did WHAT?!” Most of the people on my timeline are not great fans of his, yet most never dreamed that he would commit the incredibly serious journalistic crime of plagiarism.

2. Dismay. “How could he be so stupid?? He’s been a journalist for a long, long time!” Without really knowing precisely what he had plagiarized (at first, anyway), it was hard to know how he could have done something so dumb, something that every journalist knows is a huge no-no.

3. Sadness. Most of us were dismayed at the end of what had been a rather respected career. For after so great a breach of trust, I personally couldn’t see how Harman would have a career in journalism anymore, and I think most agreed with me.

However, as more details came out as to the breadth of this thing, I saw the opinions on my timeline begin to fracture. I personally did not see anyone say how much they empathized with Harman, but I read others’ surprise at seeing empathy for him. I was very surprised to see a journalist tweet to Harman saying, in effect, “everyone makes mistakes… no biggie.”

I saw anger develop, both toward Harman and toward Wimbledon. Some of that was my own. I remain not so much angry with Harman as puzzled — primarily with how “shocked” he kept saying he was at hearing that he had committed plagiarism. I, along with many others, wondered how on earth you could plagiarize without meaning to. Harman steadfastly maintained that he “must have forgotten” to attribute material, time and again, because of the tremendous time pressure he was under to churn out the annual Wimbledon yearbook.

I personally felt a heck of a lot more anger towards Wimbledon, who found out that Harman had plagiarized material for one of their yearbooks (never mind, for the moment, that he had actually plagiarized for a lot more than simply one yearbook) and then did precisely nothing about it. Oh, sorry. They told him he wouldn’t be authoring the 2014 yearbook. But he still received a press credential, he was still asked to write something about Andy Murray for the Wimbledon program, and he was still invited to the Champions’ Dinner. What’s more, they didn’t even pull the yearbook from their online store or physical store until one of the journalists he had plagiarized confronted Wimbledon about it.

This was where I started thinking about the whole idea of “sports forgiveness” that Matt brought up in his piece. Obviously this was not a question of forgiving an athlete as much as forgiving a sports writer. But some of the same questions came into play.

Here is where I am coming from. I am a Christian, and as such I believe very strongly in the tenet of forgiveness. However, in Christianity we view forgiveness mostly in regards to people we have some sort of relationship with, good or bad. Forgiveness is not an option for a Christian, but a requirement, to anyone who has hurt them. There are a number of reasons for this that I won’t get into, but one of the strongest reasons is because refusing to forgive causes us to think more highly of ourselves than of someone else. And that is one of the very things that Christians are called upon to not do.

Christians are also, however, called upon to extend mercy to people who have been wronged and hurt. Plagiarism hurts so many people. It hurts the people whose words are plagiarized. It hurts the reputation of the publication in which the plagiarism appears. It hurts the readers who no longer know who to trust.

I feel bad for Neil Harman. And I don’t feel bad for him. I feel bad for him because his reputation is now shot and his career is in ruins. I feel bad for him because somehow, in some way, his journalistic ethos went out the window in choosing to plagiarize. I feel bad for him because he had a terrible series of lapses in judgment — which all of us has had at some point or other — and now he will pay dearly for it. I even feel bad for him because he seems so confused as to how it happened.

However, I don’t feel bad for him because he chose to do this. I would assume he believed he would never get caught. Perhaps he assumed that the All-England Club had better things to do than to make sure everything in the yearbooks he wrote were either his own unique work or properly attributed. Perhaps he assumed that readers who stumbled across previously-written words in his yearbook would write it off as déjà vu. Perhaps he simply assumed that no one would really care. (That certainly seems to be the case for Wimbledon, if Rothenberg’s article is any indication.)

I sincerely hope that Harman, as a fellow human being, can turn this around. I hope he learns from his mistakes and stays a million miles away from the dark road that led him to believe plagiarism was an option. I hope he can rebuild his career. I also hope he learns to show true, real remorse, rather than the current apology that makes it sound like all of this was just a terrible accident and a brief lapse in professionalism.

I’m not sure I can really discuss “forgiveness” as it relates to Harman. He didn’t hurt me personally. He hurt a lot of others, though — the writers he plagiarized, the readers who purchased his yearbooks, possibly even the newspaper he works for. He even hurt the profession of journalism, at least in the tennis world, as it will be tempting for tennis fans to lump all journalists in with Harman and declare “they’re all a bunch of hacks!”

For their sake, I hope Harman finds true remorse in himself and will take it upon himself to apologize to the people he wronged. I think they deserve that much. And I think the road to redemption will be much shorter if he can fully admit to his wrongdoings and sincerely seek their forgiveness. Theirs is the forgiveness he needs. Not mine.

A Fan’s Perspective: Petra Kvitova & Novak Djokovic

While I, like most of the rest of the tennis world, first came to know Petra Kvitova when she won the 2011 Wimbledon championships, I first became her fan at the Year-Ending Championships (YEC) the same year.

That fandom had a bizarre beginning. Why, you might ask? What drew me so to this shy 21-year-old who happened to win Wimbledon and then the YEC?

She shrieked.

She didn’t shriek during points, vis-à-vis Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka. No, Petra let out a pterydactyl-like shriek of “POJD!” after every winning point. I know a lot of people detested it. But I adored it. I think I related to the unbridled enthusiasm that led to that piercing exultation.

As I watched Petra win the YEC, I – along with much of the tennis world- felt like I was seeing the next World #1.

That, of course, was not meant to be. Azarenka, Sharapova, and Williams played Ping-Pong with the #1 ranking, resting finally with Williams. Petra, meanwhile, stumbled early and often, increasingly revealing a maddening inconsistency and tendency to struggle to control her nerves.

Yet even as frustrating as it was for me to watch her fail to fulfill her potential again and again, at the same time I learned more about her as a person (outside of her tennis), and it made me like her more. I learned she was shy and found coping with her Wimbledon fame difficult. (That’s something I can understand, as a shy person myself.) I learned she was down-to-earth and sweet. I learned she was a hard worker, constantly working to improve her fitness, patience, and nerve.

When Petra joined Twitter, I followed her immediately, and her persona there left her down-to-earth fingerprints everywhere. After her losses, she would thank fans for their support and promise to continue working hard, which I found endearing.

Sometime between 2013 and now, Petra earned the somewhat mocking nickname of “P3TRA,” owing to her unfortunate propensity for playing 3-set matches, almost regardless of the level of her opponent. How she found out about the nickname, I don’t know, but she did and embraced it. A few times she tweeted and referred to herself with that nickname, like so:

If there’s anyone I love more than a down-to-earth sweetheart, it’s a down-to-earth sweetheart who doesn’t take herself seriously. Petra’s embrace of P3TRA made me love her all the more.

After Wimbledon 2013, when Petra lost to Kirsten Flipkens in the quarterfinals, I basically gave up hope that she would win another major title. But I couldn’t stop being her fan. By this time, not only was I a fan of the person, I was also a diehard fan of the game.

When she’s on, Petra has an easy power that enables her to hit jaw-dropping winners from anywhere on the court. She has a great lefty serve and deceptively sweet touch at the net. Her movement, traditionally a liability (tough to move a 6-foot frame quickly), has improved over the years.

Sure, there’s lots to admire in the games of the other top women: the nearly weakness-free, devastating power and variety of Serena; the tough-as-nails and never-say-die attitude of Maria; the creativity and variety of Aga Radwanska; the consistency and toughness of Victoria. But I can’t help adoring Petra Kvitova — maddening inconsistency, frustrating nerves, P3TRA and all.

No one’s winning smile makes me happier. And I am so very, very proud of her for having made the Wimbledon final once again. She might not win, but she’s fought so much nonsense within herself to get there.

My love affair with Novak Djokovic goes back far longer ago than my Petra fandom. It’s necessary to start with a bit of background. I was a diehard Pete Sampras fan from 1990 to his retirement in 2003. For several years afterward, I barely kept track of tennis, and so I wasn’t really ready to embrace a new dominant champion. In fact, Roger Federer’s dominance kind of offended me. People embraced him far more readily than they embraced Pete, and he started threatening (and overtaking) all of my boy’s records.

For that reason I was delighted by the emergence of Rafael Nadal when he began to challenge Federer. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to fully embrace him either. It might have been that I couldn’t bring myself to adore his game. Call it elitist and snobbish if you must, but I couldn’t bring myself to love his grinding game after years of adoring the floating Sampras (and the balletic Stefan Edberg before him).

Then, in 2007, I heard bits and pieces, rumblings if you will, about some Serbian kid named Novak Djokovic. I heard he had started challenging Federer and Nadal a bit, even beating them both at a hard court Masters tournament. I didn’t pay a tremendous amount of attention, though, until the U.S. Open. I don’t remember the round, but I remembered feeling a little frustrated with my lack of whole-hearted desire to follow tennis, and then I happened to turn on the TV and found that Novak was about to play.

I thought, I’ve heard of this guy, but I’ve never seen him play. Let’s check him out.

It was love at first sight. I fell head-over-heels in love with his tennis. I loved the defense. I loved how he seemed to track everything down and send it back with interest. I loved his easy, fluid service motion. I loved his spirit and fight.

And then, after he won, the on-court interviewer asked him if he would be willing to do some impersonations. After he impersonated both Maria and Rafa, I died laughing and fell even more deeply in love. This boy, I thought, has SPUNK. He’s FUN.

I never looked back, and 7 years later, I’m still proud to be a Novak Djokovic fan.

Much like Petra Kvitova, I found out more about Novak off-court over the years, and it led me to love him even more. I learned about his intense love for his home country of Serbia and all the work he did to try to better life for the natives of his homeland. I saw his tremendous sense of humor and refusal to take himself too seriously.

On court, aside from the tennis, I saw a lot to admire as well. I saw the applause for his opponents’ winners, both when he was ahead in the scoreline and when he was behind. I saw the willingness to concede points to his opponents after faulty line calls – again, both from a winning and a losing position. I saw the deep respect for everyone on the court. I saw genuine handshakes as well as hugs after matches both won and lost.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of complaints about some of the things Novak has done that had him labeled as “arrogant” or “disrespectful” or even “classless.” Some of these things, of course, I wish he wouldn’t have done. I’ll forever cringe at the memory of the 2008 U.S. Open post-match interview following a win over Andy Roddick. I wasn’t really paying much attention to tennis after Novak retired from a match versus Rafa at the French Open and asserted that he had been “in control” of said match, but if I had been, I probably also would have considered him arrogant (as well as ridiculous).

However… no one is perfect, and especially when one is young and has been deeply invested in by his family since he was even younger, mistakes and missteps are inevitable. But I have seen Novak grow and mature and settle into an young man (I’m 13 years older than he is, I can call him “young!”) who conducts himself with great dignity and integrity.

I am fully aware that Novak continues to have tremendous flaws, some of which absolutely harm him on the court. One of them is his desperation for crowd love. I hate that crowds so often root against him, but I hate even more that he lets it affect him as much as it does. Maybe because I have fought with a lifelong desperation for people to like me, it frustrates me that he hasn’t yet learned to let it go. He has certainly gotten better, but he’s still a work in progress.

Of course, like most of Novak’s fans, I’m also frustrated by his recent difficulties in Grand Slam finals. We were spoiled by his near-inability to lose major matches in 2011 and the beginning of 2012, only to see him crash and burn repeatedly on the sport’s biggest stages since then. Though he’s been arguably the most consistent man on the tour over the past 4 years, it’s devastating to see so few Grand Slam titles result from all that consistency.

But much like I can’t quit Petra, even with her struggles, I know I’ll never quit my Novak fandom either. I’ve watched tennis for most of my life, and not a single player has made me as fiercely proud to be a fan as Novak Djokovic has. On and off the court, no tennis player has delighted me more.

And after all his difficulties, I couldn’t be prouder that Novak keeps reaching the final round of majors, including this one.

Godspeed, Petra Kvitova and Novak Djokovic. Best wishes for your Wimbledon finals. I’ll continue to love you both, no matter what happens.