The Summer of Tennis in Australia is once again over. This weekend brought us two epic grand finals – with Caroline Wozniacki taking out Simona Halep in a three set cliff hanger, while Roger Federer beat Marin Cilic in a surprisingly competitive five-setter.
I love tennis. Every year I spend weeks up late at night watching matches, and always get sad when it’s over. This year I went to the Australian Open for the first time, and felt chills run down my spine as the first balls were hit. It was great fun.
What has always interested me about the tennis is how so fleeting it is in the Australian conscious. Tennis is a sport that grips us for one month and then leaves us just as quickly – departing to foreign shores with coverage only occurring if there’s a scandal, or if an Australian manages to win a Grand Slam. This is the very nature of the structure of the sport. Of course we are more obsessed with the sport while it is on our shores, and it is certainly harder to follow when players take off overseas to compete in the myriad of tournaments across the corners of the globe.
But watching the Australian Open this week I also think there is something a little more to this.
One of the reasons I love watching the tennis is that during a match you can really follow the ups and downs the psyches of the two players on the court. We saw this in both the finals this year, with momentum shifts in both matches making it nearly impossible to tell who would win. It’s gripping television to be able to watch these psychological shifts occur in real time.
Yet, when the game is over that becomes much harder to engage in. It’s hard to really connect to a player over the long run – to really feel like you are part of their progress, their ups and downs, and their success. Players compete on their own, and you cannot really do anything but watch from a distance.
Compare this to the other sports Australians (and others around the world) are obsessed with. Our big leagues – whether it is the AFL, NRL, Rugby Union or the A-League (and other leagues), are far less individualistic in this way, but are instead based around a team community. You don’t just follow a team, you join the club, and in turn become invested in it. Supporters can get a membership pack, you get to attend special events, and your kids get to join the league and play in juniors. Sporting clubs do a lot to really reinforce these communities, and do a very good job of it, with AFL clubs (as an example) bringing in tens of thousands of members.
This part of sport is something that I think is often deeply undervalued, particularly in sections of the left. I get really frustrated when I see those ‘enlighted’ and ‘educated’ folks, quite frequently from the left, scoff at people’s obsession with sport, as if it is a culturally inferior past time. We see this quite frequently — with people labeling those obsessed with sports as nonintellectual meat heads who don’t understand real culture.
Not only is it just extraordinarily snobbish (which is bad enough!), it ignores the real things that sport provide to people. Beyond the obvious health benefits, sport frequently provides people with a community, a sense of collective ownership, and a space where people can come together for a common, peaceful, purpose.
These are all things we should be cherishing as a community, not attacking. In an world that is becoming increasingly individualised, at least at a political level, sport continues to provide a place for community gathering. Its popularity continues to highlight how important community remains to people. In turn it is something we should be cherishing and learning from — a space that highlights the connections people still want in this world.
This is why I think, in reality, tennis could never reach the levels of popularity such as that of our other leagues. While Australia has lots of thriving local tennis clubs, they cannot provide this sense of community like our AFL, NRL, Rugby or A-League clubs can, and do. Those communities are important, and we should not just love them, but also look to them as potential models for how we can rebuild community in our individualised world.