A year ago today, or yesterday or tomorrow I’d be doing what I always did on a beautiful summer day during the first couple of weeks of July. I’d be indoors, glued to the TV – with occasional fresh air breaks – watching Wimbledon.
For many years now the start of summer has always been linked with men and women batting tennis balls across grass courts. It didn’t matter that you knew how the story would end – with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer hoisting the silver All England Tennis Club trophy over his head. Serena Williams’ annual triumph was almost equally as pre-ordained.
My appetite for tennis only increased in recent years as DIRECTV, my provider, started broadcasting the action simultaneously on five or six different courts, letting me choose which match I wanted to watch, or several matches at the same time. In other words, it was interactive. I was in tennis heaven.
But this year’s Wimbledon has been canceled. The French Open, played on clay, has been rescheduled for late September. And the U.S. Open currently plans to hold its tournament, as scheduled, in late August and early September but without fans. We’ll see how that works out.
While I’m not a passionate sports fan – with the exception of tennis – I can commiserate with millions of others whose favorite teams and sports not only provided entertainment but also added a serendipitous semblance of contour to their lives. Sports were a delightful distraction from the woes of the world. It provided an excuse to get completely enmeshed in something with no enduring consequence.
What always astonishes me is that as much as I get caught up in the drama of a tournament or a pennant race or the Super Bowl I can’t recall which teams played and who won a year, or even a few weeks later. My hunch is that this may be somewhat peculiar to me – fortunately I have yet to show any other symptoms of diminished mental capacity – but I prefer to think of it as an argument for sports. It allows you to get blissfully lost in the moment even if that moment vanishes into thin air.
My sense of loss over baseball, though I hear tell that the Major Leagues are planning to mount some reasonable facsimile of a season, is more complicated. While tennis somehow feels personal to me – I play it occasionally and it’s also a single warrior sport where the focus is on individuals rather than teams – baseball’s absence is, if anything, more profound in terms of the psyche.
It’s summer’s backdrop, its soundtrack, an inextricable part of the national identity. The shape of a baseball diamond, the brown dirt and emerald grass, the extraterrestrial glow of lights at a night game, the beer and hot dogs, the occasional fights in the stands, the unbelievable physics of a home run ball, are as much a part of summer as the sound of crickets or the glow of lightening bugs.
The other thing the sports void has made me more appreciative of is the importance of fans. I suspect that the U.S. Open won’t be nearly as exciting without a live audience, their emotions riding on the ball’s trajectory, the fate of every serve and smash. It’s much the same with Broadway shows or concerts or TV shows that are performed before an audience.
I’m fully aware that we’re social animals but I can go for fairly long stretches doing my work, or playing for that matter, alone. It’s only when a comedian delivers a joke and there’s no studio audience to receive it or a hitter launches a ball into the left field stands and there’s no fans to celebrate that you realize how much the success of sports and entertainment are the result of a symbiotic relationship, an understanding between performer and audience.
We tend to think of sports as the stories of individual stars – of salaries and statistics -- or teams where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But it’s the fans that lend an intangible element. They’re the final arbiters, if not of quality then of appreciation. Their presence is almost required to raise an athlete’s or an actor’s performance to greatness.
Writing is slightly different, if only because it’s generally done in solitude and there’s no one to share the responsibility with – perhaps that’s why I relate to tennis players -- but even then there’s always an audience in the back of your mind.
One doesn’t know how this pandemic will play out or what the long-term repercussions will be. But one thing that can be confidently predicted is that when it’s safe to return to ballparks, tennis stadiums and sports arenas there will be lots of pent up demand.
Demand not just to watch athletes perform superhuman feats but to participate in a collective ritual that depends just as much on us as it does on them.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.