So far this spring, only a few, tentative buds have formed on the trees outside my windows in northern New Jersey. Technically, we’re two weeks into spring, but what we mostly see here are bare branches, reaching up for the sky and waving back and forth in the raw April wind. The 50-degree weather tells you that everything will be green and growing soon, but for now it’s hard to tell what season it is.
Or maybe I can’t tell what time of year it is because this season’s traditional signposts have vanished. I’m not talking about what’s outside my window; I’m talking about what’s not on my television set. Where past generations celebrated the harvest in spring, or maybe just the chance to run outside again, many of us now associate this hopeful time with the lineup of sporting events that are beamed into our living rooms in March and April.
It’s not a coincidence that hearing the words “March Madness,” “Opening Day,” and “A Tradition Unlike Any Other”—i.e., CBS’s slogan for The Masters—are music to Americans’ ears. It’s not that these competitions are inherently more exciting than others; the first day of a 162-game baseball season is about as irrelevant as it gets in sports. What’s important is that they herald the end of winter, and embody the transition from indoor to outdoor life, from snow to sun, from wintry landscapes to greener pastures. Each, in its way, is about the future.
Youth is the overriding theme of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. As the nickname March Madness suggests, it’s about the berserk, irrational exuberance of our college years. For older fans, it’s a way to tap back into that enthusiasm for a few weekends, the same way we tap back into it on college-football Saturdays.
Indolence is the theme of Opening Day. Everything, including your mind, slows down during a baseball game. If you’ve ever switched channels from tennis to baseball, you know it can feel like you’re riding in a car that just slammed on the brakes and went from traveling 70 miles per hour to roughly 20. This can be jarringly boring at first, but once you adjust, time stretches, and you wonder why you were in such a rush before. This is what summer, ideally, is supposed to do for us, to get us off the fast track. “A baseball game,” Michael Chabon wrote, “is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.”
The Masters has its less-than-salutary themes, including elitism, sexism, and all-around stodginess. But the sight of the course at Augusta National, with its cornucopia of dogwoods, magnolias, junipers, and jasmines, all of them already blooming in Georgia, is an early sign of growth and rebirth, and a heartening one for those of in colder parts of the country. Color will return to us, too.
And how about tennis fans? We have our own set of events that are music to our ears, and that are synonymous with spring. The first two on the calendar, Indian Wells and Miami, have earned a co-nickname, the Sunshine Double. On their own, each of those tournament’s names calls up its own set of appealing images. “Indian Wells” calls up blue sky and desert sun. “Miami”—or “Key Biscayne”—evokes oranges and palm trees.
Both of these tournaments are products of tennis’s professional era, and both are quintessentially American. They’re owned by billionaires—Larry Ellison in Indian Wells, Stephen Ross in Miami—each of whom pays the men and women equally, something that’s not true at all dual-gender tournaments. They’re held in giant facilities, and can hold their own with the biggest U.S. sporting events. For me, Indian Wells and Miami are what tennis hoped it could become when it threw itself into the marketplace at the start of the Open era. For a U.S. tennis lover in the dead of winter, there’s nothing sweeter than being able to say, “Just got my tickets for Indian Wells!”
But the tournament that most says spring to a tennis fan is one that is quintessentially European: Monte Carlo. Played at the edge of the sea since 1897, it recalls the game’s aristocratic origins and its fantastic popularity along the Riviera in the 1920s. Whereas Indian Wells and Miami seem like 10-day vacations, Monte Carlo signals a return to business; the race to Roland Garros is on. And no spring is complete without a photo of the Mediterranean, and the blue sky beyond, from the top of the Monte Carlo Country Club.
Except that this year, we won’t see that photo. Like every other tournament from now until July, Monte Carlo has been cancelled. A non-sports fan might say this is an opportunity; to get off the couch and appreciate the season outdoors, to see nature in bloom around you. And it’s true, I’ve become very familiar with the slowly-flowering trees and shrubs of northern New Jersey over the last few weeks.
What’s missing is the community that sports creates, the shared sense of hope and optimism that comes with the season, and which we likely won’t feel again until 2021. How will I know it’s spring next year? When everything—from tennis fans planning their trips to Indian Wells; to college-basketball fans filling out their brackets; to the magnolias blooming at Augusta; to the sunlit grass of a baseball diamond—feels a little irrationally exuberant again.