This year, the return of tennis has felt more essential than ever

by: Steve Tignor | January 03, 2019

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HIGHLIGHTS: Maria Sharapova kicks off the WTA season with a victory


The tennis season, as has been well-documented, is too long. It’s so long that the sport can’t find a way to fit it into a calendar year. This past weekend, in a time-honored tradition, the 2019 season began before 2018 had come to an end. There wasn’t even time to ring in the new year: As December 31 ticked over to January 1 in Brisbane, Australia, Marie Bouzkova and Sam Stosur were playing their way through the third set of their opening-round match. I didn’t hear any champagne corks popping among the hundred or so people who stuck around to watch.

Despite the absurd brevity of the six-week off-season, I always relish tennis’ return. This time around the sport has never seemed more soothingly essential. The blue courts and summer skies of Australia warm up late winter nights in New York. After a month of watching the NFL and NBA, tennis’ quiet, uncluttered, one-on-one theatricality brings a renewed sense of calm to our sports-viewing lives. Even an overly long bathroom break on opening day didn’t send me into an eye-rolling rage, the way it might six months from now.

The players themselves, many of them sporting new outfits and accompanied by new coaches, look energized and hopeful, and that’s typically reflected in the quality of their play. It’s not an accident that the Australian Open often produces some of the best matches of the year. In my trips to Melbourne in the past, I was always surprised by how much more chatty and upbeat the pros were at the start of a season, even with the press. For them, it seems, six weeks away from tour life—the airports and hotel rooms and player lounges—is enough. As Maria Sharapova said one year Down Under, by the time January rolls around, “you’re kind of over practice.” These athletes live for the arena, and they’re ready to do whatever it takes to step back into it.

Maybe the best aspect of this year’s opening week has been the chance to see Sharapova and her WTA tour-mates on U.S. televisions again, playing live and un-preempted. Last fall, the tour signed a five-year deal with Tennis Channel to broadcast women’s matches in the States. That was welcome news to most fans here; the WTA’s international broadcaster, beIN Sports, was known for erratic coverage at best. beIN’s primary interest is in soccer, and everything else comes a distant second. That won’t be true with Tennis Channel, where multiple courts from multiple women’s events will be available each week. Pro tennis is at its best when it feels like a giant, traveling, co-ed, multi-national, poly-lingual prep school. With the WTA back on board, Tennis Channel can present it that way to U.S. fans again.

In his new book The Circuit, about the 2017 men’s season, poet and author Rowan Ricardo Phillips says that for hardcore tennis fans, the January swing through Australia brings a sense of order back to our lives. These four weeks set the tone and start the story lines for the long season ahead.

In 2019, the return of tennis has felt like a chance to re-enter an alternative universe where little, if anything, ever seems to change. Our niche sport flows along month after month and year after year, self-contained and self-sufficient, largely unnoticed and unbothered by the main streams of sports or news. The rest of the world may only know Roger’s and Serena’s names, but there are always enough people, scattered around the globe, who are drawn to the human-scale drama that tennis offers, and who are happy to follow it for 11 months out of the year.

We know every player’s name—as well as their nicknames and their parents’ names—and through social media we’ve created our own, untranslatable, tennis-centric language around them. At a time when politics and world events are as stress-inducing and unpredictable as they’ve ever been, it’s nice to know we can leave the conventional world behind and immerse ourselves in the tennis-verse again. There, no matter where we happen to be as we watch, it’s always summer. For the moment, I’m happy to have the tennis go on for far too long.

This Week on Tennis Channel Plus:

Hopman Cup (Sat - Sat 12.29 - 1.5)
•    Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber headline the Hopman Cup. Watch live coverage on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Saturday 12/29 at 9:00pm ET.

ATP/WTA Brisbane (Sun - Sun 12.30 - 1.6)
•    Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens open their 2019 seasons in Brisbane. Live coverage from three courts begins on Tennis Channel Plus on Sunday 12/30 at 8:00pm ET.

WTA Auckland (Sun - Sun 12.30 - 1.6)
•    Catch the action from the ASB Classic including Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. Live coverage begins on Tennis Channel Plus on Sunday 12/30 at 8:00pm ET.

WTA Shenzhen (Sat - Sat 12.29 - 1.5)
•    Watch first to last ball action from the Shenzhen Open featuring Maria Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko beginning Saturday 12/29 at 11:00pm ET.

ATP Pune (Mon - Sat 12.31 - 1.5)
•    Watch Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic and Hyeon Chung live from Pune starting Monday 12/31 at 6:30am ET.

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