The Tennis Fan Today (Part 1)

Professional tennis, and the watching of professional tennis, are two completely different matters. A person can love professional tennis as I do and yet never watch it, and not miss it, and not even mind when it isn’t being played. This empty Wimbledon pandemic fortnight, after the blank where Roland Garros should have been, leaves me shrugging with equal indifference. Of course, if Maria Sharapova hadn’t retired my guess is I’d feel differently, bothered at least if not somewhat heartsick on her behalf. I’d have loved to see her win more titles. But as it is, I don’t care.

Blame the impedimenta. To attending in professional tennis events in person in a normal year, a long list: inconvenience, jacked-up prices, extreme overcrowding, intrusive security, feral bands of child autograph hunters, terrible pop music playing on the changeovers (put this at the top of the list) and all over the grounds, the air thick with beeriness and meat smoke, the fatigue-slackened faces silvered by Jumbotron light pollution: a horrible time and this is with comp tickets, forget about having to pay for them.

But to follow from afar is not much easier nor any more pleasant. What started out, for one thing, as too many commercials has become too much to pay monthly for a premium cable subscription: an annoyance has grown into a major barrier. Beyond which is “the product” itself—always a product, professional tennis have never been more of one—how it looks and what it contains. When I’ve been able to watch on occasion these past several years, I’ve seen the commercials haven’t gone anywhere, they’ve multiplied inside the broadcasts and overrun the tournaments, the courts, the players’ persons. Information-wise, it’s a wasteland of pointless statistics, canned themes, obfuscation and hacky hagiography. The commentators chatter without ceasing. I especially dread the national embarrassment that settles in as the Americans mispronounce every single “foreign” player’s name. It’s deliberate, I’ve even heard them refer to the “Americanized version.” The embarrassment and sorrow at how our media hold us back, we the people who could use better training from childhood onward, these deep feelings get in there and spoil my enjoyment, over time they’ve helped to erode my wish to watch at all.

Slash a way through all these unpalatable trappings and there is professional tennis, the game itself and the act of watching it being played. Without question, we see our human civilization at a peak here—more than one, really. As sports go, like baseball, it’s full of perfections. Unusually, both sexes reach the highest levels of play, of reward, and of fame. The best men are like demigods. And where else have women, rising in white skirts out of immemorial subjections, made such a sustained display of active liberated female bodies, unrestrained and self-directed, excelling in competition? Simply to sit and reflect on the last century in professional women’s tennis is to be in touch with the highest ideals, while memory fills with heroics and proud moments. Tennis in thought is very beautiful.

In finding ways to make the pleasure of watching professional tennis outweigh the depressing nastiness of actually doing so, the modern fan leans hard on personalities. Attachments and infatuations bind us to the sight of certain players so that we’ll put up with the most aggravating coverage in return.  Also, great players, like Maria Sharapova, make it worthwhile to watch them. Though too many beautiful quiet tensions have gone from today’s noisy game (which despite what people say won’t be appreciably quieter in her absence when play resumes this year), a mute control brings goodness back, like a magic wand whose wave leaves us alone in the hush with our love idols.

I’d stopped muting Maria years ago, however, when I began to love the way she vocalized. Her whole game just captured me. Here is a tinyloop from a final she played at Stanford in August 2010. Victoria Azarenka’s voice is first, Sharapova’s second.

2nd Roland Garros title