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Tennis is a lonely sport. Ask any player, analyst, or student of the game and you will hear this repeated again and again. It’s probably the first thing that comes to mind when considering the hardships of the sport. Players are worn down by long road trips away from home, with only coaches by their side. It’s similar for tennis fans. Nobody really throws a party to watch a Slam final no matter how important, and few find themselves waking in the middle of the night to take in a match on the other side of the world.
Even if you are that crazy, even if a match could have the rally of the season it’s rare to have someone sitting next to you to high five after the point concludes like you may when watching other sports.
The closest that many fans come to group excitement during a match, unless you are in the stadium itself, is the comfort of tightly knit “tennis twitter” or the few friends and family insane enough to get up at all hours to text back and forth throughout the entire match. It’s a solitary watching environment, but it fits well with the aura of the sport itself.
Celebrate points and cringe over defeat in equal measure, but do it mostly alone with your own thoughts. Just like the players as they stare each other down from either side of the net.
But this weekend, laying awake waiting for the Australian Open Finals to start, it was hard not to think about the benefits of such a viewing environment. Much has been made of the fact that both match-ups — Venus vs. Serena and Federer vs. Nadal — harkened back to the peak of “Golden Age” tennis circa a decade ago.
With the exception of Serena any of these players getting to the final of a Major tournament wasn’t only unexpected, it was damn near impossible to think about even a couple weeks ago. And they ended up playing each other. The matches were comforting in a bittersweet way because they brought everyone back to the glory of peak tennis without actually transporting people back to that time.
Even though actual time travel doesn’t exist, since they were happening in the middle of the night for many people watching it did have the unexpected benefit of forming a kind of bubble in which everything not happening on the court no longer existed. You didn’t have to feel connected to the optimism and tennis moments of the late-aughts in spirit, you could imagine that somehow we were back there — not only in the heyday of Venus or Rafa but also with the political hope of that time — just by virtue of the emptiness of the internet at that hour.
It’s far easier to ignore everything happening beyond the television when the only people awake are tennis writers and a handful of truly insane people watching live because they care so deeply about the results. It calls to mind that ever-relevant 30 Rock joke that the only surefire way to success is to “make it 1997 again through science or magic.” No science was necessary, but the magic of Rafa’s cross court winners and Venus’ returns of serve were so incredible to watch they were able to form a magical protective buffer from the rest of 2017.
Tennis’ Golden Age has wound down as of late, with these four players representing what that denouement means more than any other players still active. Sure it’s fun to have Sir Andy Murray terrorizing butterflies mid-match or Angelique Kerber dominating an entire season with no warning, but they are the upstarts that disrupted the idealism of previous reigns. This weekend’s matches not only kept the outside world at bay for a while but offered an opportunity for people to get a second chance to say goodbye to that era and perhaps finally fully embrace the fact that it’s all but over.
It’s not completely out of the question for either of these matches to happen again. But every player out there, whether they won or lost, was so happy to be back in a position that they never thought they would see themselves in again, and things are at the point that these may be some of the last teary podium speeches they get to say. Federer and Nadal suffered injuries that tanked their 2016 seasons like never before (although Rafa is far more familiar at this point with lengthy injury time off than Fed is), whereas Serena and Venus went through health issues years ago that threatened to derail both of their careers completely with almost no advance warning.
It happened so fast, those good times leaving.
Each of those injuries or turning points was mostly unexpected, and there was a chance that every one of these four could have retired without anybody getting the proper chance to appreciate their final days. Federer was invincible to the ravages of time until he injured himself giving one set of twins a bath (naturally). People talked about Rafa’s style of play being a liability for his knees endlessly until it came true, the Spaniard retreating from the clay courts of Europe to his base in Mallorca to recover from endlessly nagging injuries.
Remember when Rafa co-starred in a Shakira music video and everyone was young and innocent? You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. The Williams Sisters match was a reminder of what we’d taken for granted and miraculously gotten a second chance to fully appreciate, while with “Fedal” the five-set epic was almost an admonishment from the tennis gods for thinking there would always be another one of those around the corner.
It only made sense then that every post-match speech carried with it an undertone of grateful shock from the players, a sense of getting there in the first place still not having sunk in even though the matches were already completed. Fans should be just as grateful. Without getting too into current politics, the good times are coming to a swift and brutal end in that sector as well, and more and more people are going to use sports to distract themselves from what’s going on. What a perfect start to the next few years then, that everybody got to reminisce and enjoy the old times in a bubble for at least a few hours.
As I said on Twitter after she won her semifinal match over Coco Vandeweghe, maybe if Venus just keeps twirling and smiling everything will be fine.
Maybe if Federer joins her in jumping for joy and beaming from ear to ear after every win, it will be even easier to pretend the real world can be kept out by amazing achievements on the court. The same way Venus’ effusive twirling harkened back to a younger, better time for everyone, so did Federer’s vintage backhand down the line shots and first-set net play. That doesn’t mean there weren’t still signs of end times sprinkled throughout the weekend. Federer won multiple (yes multiple) Hawkeye challenges which is basically a harbinger of the apocalypse all on its own. Not to mention Rafa’s hair follicles pulling a full-on Prince William, or Serena being broken multiple times in a final.
Even with all that, at least for a time this weekend, it was suddenly half a decade ago and everyone’s crushing sense of mortality got put on hold.
Like clapping to bring Tinkerbell back to life, every effortless Federer one-handed backhand or Serena urging herself to “fight, FIGHT!” against her sister brought back a little bit of that old feeling, a callback to when those things were the norm match in and match out.
As the men’s match crept towards the end of the fifth set, and the sun rose on the East Coast, and news organizations once again started to tweet and post about life’s many tragedies, the protection of tennis’ bubble faded away and everything else started to creep back in along the edge. But for a little over 24 hours this weekend it was possible to watch these matches, alone with nothing but the snap of a forehand and the McEnroe brothers complaining.
It sure was nice thinking about nothing but the miraculous gift that was getting to watch Roger and Rafa and Serena and Venus one more time.