Most nights this week, I’ve been setting my schedule around TV, holding onto every exciting plot twist, yelling at my screen and tweeting live about how stressed I am, scrolling through everyone’s tweets about how stressed they are. (Same, Cher, same.)
It’s not show the dragons. It’s not that other great fantasy streaming spectacle which premiered this week. It’s the prime-time games of the US Open, and especially any game with Serena Williams the GOAT, in what is likely to be the last major tournament of her storied career.
If you regularly watch tennis, or any other live sport, you have most likely had the experience of getting personally invested in it as a great television series. I imagine you’re reading this and rolling your eyes, thinking, uh, where have you been? But for more casual sports watchers like me, who tune in to a blue moon only once, it was exciting to rediscover how live sports can become a seismic cultural event. It was very satisfying to get invested in a certain result – and then open Twitter and see how invested everyone else is too.
Like scrolling through Twitter on a night of major prestige TV show, there’s something incredible about the collective fizz of the experience. We see this all happening together. On Wednesday night, when Serena lost a set in a thrilling match against the world’s No. 2 ranked player, Anett Kontaveit, I was extremely stressed… and then I wondered: Is Gladys Knight Stressed Out Too?
The story of the match could change at any moment. Every little move can bring a surprise. If you look away for even a second, you might miss something spectacular. It’s like watching a prestigious TV show, where you only get the fullest experience if you stay tuned in to every cutting dialogue, every small but crucial facial expression and hand gesture.
However, here is something remarkable about its simplicity. For example, they are not members of a sprawling wealthy white family who cheat and cheat on each other in an exotic environment, with high production values and dramatic music. It’s just two people (or four, if it’s a doubles game) volleyball a ball back and forth, sometimes for hours. It’s fascinating.
And who better to star than Serena Williams? (Thursday night we were lucky enough to both Serena and her sister Venus in a rare prime-time doubles match.) Few athletes are more captivating and powerful to watch, even aside from tennis itself. On Wednesday night, as the crowd chased Kontaveit for scoring a shot that just crossed the line, Williams waved her finger and everyone instantly went silent. The queen must be obeyed.
In her post-win interview, when ESPN correspondent Mary Joe Fernández asked if her performance this week surprised her, Williams just smiled and said:: “I’m just Serena, you know?” The crowd howled.
With this year’s US Open, there is an additional emotional investment due to Williams’ impending retirement from professional tennis. We tune in every game to enjoy every moment with her – and hope every night it won’t be the last time we see her on the field. To everyone’s delight, she has performed spectacularly so far.
Fortunately, unlike a weekly prestige show, we don’t even have to wait long for the next episode: Serena plays again on Friday evening at 7 o’clock.