This morning the world’s No. 1 men’s golfer, Rory McIlroy, sent out a tweet that informed us of how he was spending his morning: “Watching my girl play in Dubai before starting my day in Arizona.” If you clicked on the accompanying link, you saw a photo of McIlroy’s laptop (at right). There indeed was his girl, former No. 1 women’s tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, in the middle of her opening-round match at the Dubai Duty Free Championships.
If you’re on the young side, you probably reacted to this modern-day blend of celebrity, social media, and Internet technology with a shrug. After all, most of us have computers. Most of us are used to watching sports on them. And celebs give us glimpses of their lives on Facebook and Twitter all the time. The true social-media lover might have been disappointed that Rory didn’t take it a step farther and tweet out a GIF of Caro fist-pumping after one of her winners or being harangued by her father on a changeover.
Even knowing all of this, though, I couldn’t quite shrug at Wee Mac’s tweet. I didn’t grow up with the Internet, which means that at some level it will never cease to amaze me. (Somehow, I survived college not only without Wikipedia or Google or Facebook, but without a computer. I know what you’re thinking—what did he do all day?) Part of my cyber-dated mind is still boggled that an IT person in Los Angeles can "get into" my desktop in New York and fix whatever ails it. From my old-fashioned point of view, the most interesting, and in some sense, most amazing thing about McIlroy’s photo was that there was a live tennis match on his laptop.
Before this year I was biased toward televised tennis, and against the Internet stream. If a match wasn’t shown live on ESPN or the Tennis Channel, I was usually willing to wait. I like TennisTV, though it has become frustrating to be told over and over that its feed is “unavailable in my territory.” Outside of that pay site, the free live-stream universe appeared to me like a virtual wild west, a hornet’s nest of dying feeds, scratchy quality, pop-up come-ons, and commercials that ran in the middle of points rather than during changeovers. Only must-see matches seemed worth wading through all of that to catch.
So far in 2013, though, I’ve gotten over it. I’d like to say that my change of heart was driven by a philosophical shift, but it was mostly the power of the bookmark that won me over. At the start of the season, in preparation for a trip to the Australian Open, I finally bookmarked a stream-gathering site. Suddenly Barthel vs. Wickmayer from Auckland, and Dimitrov vs. Klizan from Brisbane, along with 50 other matches a day, were a click away. It was hard to resist a peek at them.
This past week may have marked the moment when I shifted irrevocably to tennis on the computer, for better or worse. It began last Monday evening, when I found myself keeping an eye on Jack Sock’s and Ryan Harrison’s first-round matches at the SAP Open. My tennis writing and editing was done for the day, but I kept a fuzzy feed from San Jose open on my laptop through the evening anyway. There it stayed, the court flickering in my peripheral vision, as I watched TV and read a book. By the middle of the week, the stream was flowing all day, from Doha in the morning, to Rotterdam in the afternoon, to São Paulo in the evening, to late-night matches from San Jose. Tennis served as the low-grade ambient soundtrack to the day.
On Sunday, I had planned to watch the Serena-Azarenka final from Doha on a half-hour tape delay on the Tennis Channel. But this time I couldn’t wait. I streamed it live, and carried the match with me on my laptop around the apartment as I did the dishes, put away the laundry, swept the floor. As we’ve learned with cellphones and music-listening devices, convenience trumps all other concerns in the end. I have a stereo in my apartment and hundreds of CDs and records, but now I listen to most of my music on YouTube, on an iPad that I drag from room to room. The same will likely go for my tennis watching.
Again, none of this is news to many of you. But for those of us who didn’t grow up with access to every tennis match in the world, how does it change the nature of watching and following the sport? I had always thought that I wouldn’t want to be a fan who kept tabs on every single result, no matter how small the tournament. That seemed strictly for the know-it-alls. It had been nice, in the past, to get a first look at an up-and-comer when they came to the U.S. Open or Key Biscayne or Indian Wells. In pre-stream, pre-YouTube 2005, I went to Miami looking forward to seeing Ana Ivanovic play for the first time. I’d read about the Serbian girl who was tearing up the minor leagues, but had no idea what her game was like. Would it have been as intriguing if I'd seen each of her wins that winter?
It might have, actually. So far this year, the more I’ve seen of certain players—youngsters like Sock, Jamie Hampton, Laura Robson, Yulia Putintseva, Grigor Dimitrov; established players like Julien Benneteau, Caroline Wozniacki, and Tommy Haas—the more I’ve wanted to see them again, to track their weekly progressions and regressions. As for tournaments, being able to watch all of them, and almost every round of them, makes the smaller events feel more important in my mind. I know Doha isn't Wimbledon, but it felt pretty big this past week. I know Rotterdam isn't the U.S. Open, but it was worth watching to see Julien Benneteau try to end his finals drought there. The more you see, the more stories you follow.
It's hard to think of another sport that’s so well tailored for the Internet as the scattered, globe-trotting world of tennis, where there are four or five tournaments to watch each week. With Twitter and Streamhunter, you can bring the game with you everywhere you go; you can make following it an all-day semi-obsession, a second life.
Is this an unhealthy new way to watch sports? Not necessarily, in my opinion. Most of us who are heavily into something, whether its sports or music or politics or anything else, aren't merely passive followers. Our reactions to actors or bands or tennis players become part of how we define ourselves, assert ourselves. Following tennis all day every day can get old, like anything else—ironically, there were precious few streams I had any desire to click on today, while I wrote this article. But it can also be addictive and fun. There's a lot to watch in our sport, and I'm happy to have enough access now that I can choose how much of it I want to see. Life is a stream these days. It's hard to stay out of it.