If you get down to it, the reason most people watch sports is that watching sports is a fun thing to do with other people, whether they’re friends, family, Twitter followers, or some high-five-happy stranger in a bar.
This is not the case for people, like me, who indulge in Night Sports: those events, mainly tennis and soccer, that take place in non-North American locations and must be viewed at extremely odd hours if they’re to be seen live. Night Sports are about perseverance; about staying in and ignoring one’s social commitments and sleep regimens; about brewing another pot of coffee or dipping into your roommate’s Adderall prescription; about Mastercard and McDonald’s ads gradually becoming replaced by shoddily filmed spots for Zooloo Leather as the hour dips from “just one more episode of Lost” to “maybe you should see a doctor about that.” Night Sports force you to enjoy the pure aesthetics of what you’re watching without the comfort of community to dictate and enhance your feelings. You must watch because you like watching. There’s no Facebook for commiserating about at the referees, no friends to giddily text following a particularly exquisite play. There’s just you, the television, and the feeling that you’re maybe being a little unreasonable by not settling for the tape-delay rerun.
Such was the case with my viewing, last weekend, of the Australian Open. It’s one of the biggest tennis events of every year and almost no one in America watches it. And that’s not a matter of tennis being a niche sport: the 2012 U.S. Open men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray drew 16 million United States viewers; by comparison, the Australian Open final between the two drew somewhere around a million.
The online emptiness enveloping the Australian’s semifinal, two Thursdays ago, was particularly jarring. It wasn’t Schmoe vs. Schlub, but Roger Federer and Andy Murray. All of the angles — the regent king versus the heir ascendant, the gentleman versus the moper, the prodigy versus his late-blooming, slightly balding younger brother — added up to this being the most high-profile and high-stakes match of the year thus far. I’d adhered to a specific timetable of what needed to happen for me to get through the match alright — drinks with a friend, power nap, jar of Folger’s, break! — with hopes of everything finishing in time so that I might rest for a minute before my regular day began. That didn’t happen, which is why I spent most of Friday napping unsuccessfully and slapping myself in the face.
But the match itself was well worth it as a tennis fan, as anyone up was given the chance to see the declining Federer hold it together against a player six years his junior. When there’s nothing to do but watch the match, moments like Federer’s exhilarating break point to force a tiebreak in the fourth set (which he won) take on even more drama, like the climax of a movie. When some of the other sportswriters I follow checked into the match around 6 a.m., as the sun was slowly breaking through the windows and turning Night Sports into Morning Sports, I felt like I’d been a part of something they hadn’t. It reminded me of the 2008 Summer Olympics men’s basketball gold medal game between the U.S.A. and Spain, 40 minutes of high level back-and-forth between the world’s best . A friend and I stayed up until 4 A.M. watching it, completely invested and completely alone in the pre-Twitter era, but it ended up being one of the best games I’ve ever seem in my life. Whenever it comes up in conversation with other sports fans — which is admittedly rare — it’s a badge of honor.
The subsequent Australian Open final between Murray and Djokovic was a literally sleepy affair, as I’d decided to stay straight up rather than getting any rest beforehand. Twitter was a different kind of empty. If I can be honest, I fell asleep at least once during the match — Djokovic’s victory was so perfunctory after the first two sets that the he couldn’t even work up the shirtless, Hulked-up prancing displayed at the end of his more raggedy wins. After watching his victory speech, I was so desperately happy to get to sleep — and very unenthused when I had to wake up a few hours later (for lunch).
How would the Super Bowl rate if you watched it by yourself, cut off from buffalo sauce and the Twitter public launching thousands of Beyonce jokes per second? A sporting spectacle so specifically designed to spark a conversation amongst a feverishly engaged public — to the point where the commercials are “leaked” days in advance to millions of views — would probably actually seem more garish and ostentatious without other people to point out how garish and ostentatious it was. You’d be paying attention to the actual football, a rarity at some Super Bowl parties. You’d maybe giggle at a few commercials, but wouldn’t feel the need to immediately and cynically break them down just because everyone else was. Sure, you’d be alone. But that might not be so bad.