Last Sunday, Roger Federer defeated Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final to claim his 18th major tennis title and reaffirm his status as the best player in the history of the sport. It was an amazing moment in sports, and you … well … you probably slept right through it.
Suppose next Sunday, Donald Trump, through executive order, proclaims that the Super Bowl will start at 3 a.m. because he wants to late-night tweet about it. Will you sacrifice your health and happiness to stay up and watch two historically irrelevant teams play in the Super Bowl? For goodness sake, of course you will!
So, what’s the difference?
Before I start to reprimand you for dreaming about GOATs instead of watching them perform live, I have to admit that I, too, hibernated through most of the Federer-Nadal Australian Open final. What I was able to see, I only saw because I stayed awake late enough Saturday night to catch the first set, and woke up early enough Sunday morning to watch the last.
Praise for my viewership, however, is quite unnecessary. I was able to witness brilliant tennis not because of my commitment as a fan, but because of an overpriced vodka-Red Bull at midnight, and an even more overpriced Amtrak at 9 a.m. the next morning. The drink was worth it — the Amtrak was not — and the tennis, of course, was priceless.
But it wasn’t priceless for everyone. In fact, most folks I know think that anyone who wakes up at 3 a.m. to watch tennis is out of their mind. Perhaps we are. Tennis fans include an eclectic mix of international-student roommates, geriatrics, country club elites and unmarried aunts who love Rafa despite his hair plugs.
In other words, following tennis in the United States is out of the mainstream. It’s weird, it’s dorky, it’s soft: It’s everything your average college student doesn’t want to be called. The biggest headline on Saturday’s “SportsCenter” wasn’t “Nadal-Federer Grand Slam Final.” It was “Tiger Woods Misses Cut at Torrey Pines.”
ESPN and its pundits can lament the 3 a.m. start time of the match. They can claim that Tiger Woods, regardless of performance, is still a more newsworthy figure in America than Federer or Nadal. And they very well might be right. But their being right does not mean that America has it right.
The men’s and women’s Australian Open finals this past weekend were two of the most significant tennis matches in the history of the sport. Serena Williams, the best female athlete of all time, faced her older sister Venus, who probably never thought she would make a Grand Slam final again after being diagnosed with a life-threatening autoimmune disease in 2011. The Williams sisters are more than tennis players; they are cultural icons, the likes of which the sport has never seen.
On the men’s side, Roger Federer became the oldest person ever to win a Grand Slam final, and Rafael Nadal proved that he’s the most ferocious competitor in tennis, if not in all of sports. Your creepy uncle likes to tell you about “Fire and Ice,” the days of Borg-McEnroe? Imagine “Fire and Ice” both were masters of the Bowflex, won 12 more Grand Slams, figured out how to hit ground strokes, respected each other and danced ballet. That’s Federer-Nadal.
In the context of any other sport, this past weekend would have been revolutionary. It would have been like Muhammad Ali coming back from the dead to face Joe Frazier one last time. Or someone finally finding Bobby Fischer and setting him up against a Russian grandmaster for a final Cold War chess duel.
Tennis is boxing, except weight class doesn’t matter and social class does. But it is also chess, except instead of moving queens on a board, you play in front of them. It strains you physically; it destroys you mentally. It teaches you to be an honest athlete, but also a ruthless competitor. And all you need to learn the sport is a racket, a ball and a friend. Trust me, finding the last one is the hardest part.
This past weekend was historic for sports. But it was historic for a sport you probably don’t care all that much about. With the Australian Open finals in mind, I ask you to reconsider the sports you watch and the reasons you watch them. Do you watch sports because they are on at convenient times of the day? No, of course not. You watch sports because they are exciting and they matter to you. I promise tennis is exciting. It is up to you to decide whether it matters.
So how do you feel now about sleeping in on Sunday? No reason to answer immediately. It might be 100 years before the two greatest players of all time meet in a Grand Slam final again, and I guarantee we will all be asleep by then.