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Tennis, Television, Bliss

| Thursday, February 2, 2017

tv banner webCristina Interiano

Why do I watch television?

That’s perhaps not the best question to ask yourself, especially if you’re a TV studies major like me. Nonetheless, it’s one I’ve grappled with for as long as I can remember, and with heightened intensity in recent months. For obvious reasons, TV is now a source of angst and despair.

Or it was until 3 a.m. last Sunday, when tennis legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal faced off in the Australian Open final. Nostalgia was the word of the hour. The whole world was surprised to see the pair advance to the final. Federer hadn’t won a Grand Slam tournament since 2012, and Nadal hadn’t even advanced to a final in three years. Nobody expected the match would rival the pair’s classic showdowns from a decade ago. Still, who could resist the chance to travel back in time?

But nostalgia was only partly responsible for the transcendent TV experience that was the 2017 Australian Open final. Another key reason was TV itself.

The 2008 Wimbledon final, in which Nadal defeated Federer, may be the greatest tennis match ever played, but Sunday’s Australian Open final is the greatest match ever played for television. There’s a distinction to be made, I think, between watching tennis on TV and watching TV-tennis. The latter requires not just an understanding of tennis, but also an appreciation of televisual spectacle. The action on the court on Sunday didn’t rival that of the legendary 2008 Wimbledon final. But there’s more to it than just what’s on the court.

TV has to please viewers in order to stay on the air. That basic principle can be used to explain a lot of what we see on the tube, including sports. The need to hook viewers, to convince them they must continue watching, is probably the reason legacy always tends to feature prominently in televised sports commentary. It’s the sportscaster’s way of telling you: “This is important. It’s historic. You can’t miss this.”

Sunday’s match was the embodiment of this principle. Prior to the match, Federer had the edge in number of major titles, with 17 to Nadal’s 14. A win for Federer would stretch the gap to a seemingly insurmountable four titles. A win for Nadal would shrink the gap to just two. And if the victorious Spaniard, once again in championship form, could then upset the likes of Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka at the French Open, the gap would be just a single title. Similar calculus could be applied to the pair’s head-to-head record on hard courts. Whoever won, it was clear that both were running out of time to make their case for GOAT status.

If that all sounds like hyperbole, ask yourself: Aren’t the most memorable sports telecasts always hyperbolic? (If you’re tempted to say “no,” ask yourself: “Do you believe in miracles?”) That’s the point. John McEnroe repeatedly insisting into his commentator’s headset that Nadal is the toughest competitor in the history of sport is the point. Co-commentator Chris Fowler countering McEnroe by sharing bits of his conversation with Federer, in which the Swiss said this Australian Open would be his sweetest victory ever, is the point. Computer-generated, artificially dramatized displays of players’ challenges of line calls are the point. Incessant commentary about how age affects strategy — Will the aging Swiss try to fight his way back into this set after having his serve twice broken, or will he conserve his energy? — is the point. And of course, all the talk of legacy …

Proclamations that the match lived up to the hype may have been false. Indeed, the match mined drama more from its large swings in momentum than from sustained excellence. But that’s not the point. The point is there was hype. A lot of it. Which is another way of saying this telecast wasn’t an unmediated look at a tennis match contested across the globe — it was a hyper-mediated one. One in which the action on the court wasn’t spectacular in spite of being on TV. One in which the on-court spectacle was inseparable from the trappings of television. It wasn’t just great tennis. It was a great telecast of great tennis. Sunday’s match was TV-tennis par excellence. And it was a consummate reminder of why we watch television.

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