Summertime, and managers turn their televisions from CNN to Fox Sports 1 while interns crowd around a few monitors, cursing five-second delays. A supervisor keeps half his gaze on the pitch the whole time we’re talking, interrupting me with an “Oh!” when a ball sails high. I’m in the kitchen when blood-curdling screams break out, prompting a coworker to hurry over. “Did you hear something?”
“World Cup,” I say, with a smile that is tired, but trying to be understanding.
I’m tired partly because I’m suffering through the Wimbledon fortnight. And I mean literal suffering, knee jostling against the desk, so anxious that I’m in a full-body cramp. Tennis isn’t really a sport you scream at—if anything, you wail, lamenting a forehand dumped into the net, a cascade of double faults—but even so, I’ve trained myself to be quiet, to restrain my celebrations to one quick fist-pump. Because I have to suffer through this alone. No one cares about my tournaments, or high-fives me when my favorite player—Roger Federer, aged and like me, burning with silent rage—does something right. Like him, I’m out here on my own, having locked myself into this private torture chamber and then swallowed the key.
The “who cares?” I hear when I tell people I watch tennis turn to outright snickers when I tell them I watch figure skating. A non-contact sport will always be mocked as limp-wristed, but it isn’t just that. Watch boxing or MMA and you’ve got “issues”; watch golf and you’re a prep school snob; watch auto racing of any kind and you’re just into car crashes.
Team sports, on the other hand, are carried out in service of the community, which bestows upon them a certain nobility. Or at least a certain nostalgia, for a particular golden skyline and a beloved neighborhood dive where an enormous clan of smiling kinfolk are raising their glasses—a sepia memory of a moment that likely never was. Team sports are literally self-less, drowning if not erasing the complicated edges of your individuality in favor of a brightly-colored jersey. And that feels good, feels safe. Even the most ostracized outcast can be shielded from the mammalian pain of unbelonging when they’re operating as HuskerFan87.
Individual sports are different. Outside of the Olympics, which is really just a heavily splintered mass team event, individual sports are a triumph of globalization and late-stage capitalism. Nationalism is reduced to nothing more than a Lindt chocolate commercial. Homefield advantage is irrelevant. Superstars of individual sports have to market themselves beyond borders. The money is in sponsorships, after all, and Gillette wants to sell razors everywhere.
Which means you don’t have a skyline or a neighborhood dive, in individual sports. You don’t have a stadium or a fight song or a uniform. You don’t have a shoulder to lean on. It’s just you and your champion, raging against the dying of the light.
My friends think I’m crazy, and that’s if they’re being kind. It’s strange to someone on the outside, caring about a sport where the only thing at stake is a stranger’s personal glory. It’s strange to set my alarm for 3 A.M. for tournaments that I have to suffer through alone.
Andre Agassi called tennis the “loneliest sport” for athletes to play, but it was just as lonely to be his 9-year-old fan, gnashing my teeth as I watched him lose match after match, furious that I had no way of helping this helpless person. Even then, I wondered why I was putting myself through this agony. But hero worship is a hell of a drug, and individual sports were made for masochists, whether you’re an athlete or a fan. People who generally believe they’re better off alone.
Solo sports are home to a lot of anguish. The star gets all the glory and shoulders all the blame. There is no hiding angst and anger when an athlete is alone in the spotlight without a face mask, or even a mouth guard to dig their teeth into. Every scowl is visible, every profanity is broadcast. As a fan, you’re going to find out sooner or later the sort of compromises you’re going to have to make in the name of your whiny, arrogant, Class A choker of a champion. Does your beloved perhaps never credit their opponents? Do they blame phantom injuries, have an ill temper, a bad attitude? Are they, perhaps, Jack Sock?
Those are the easy questions, but you’re probably going to need to make harder decisions too. Remember: there is no correlation between a good person and a good athlete. Is your beloved on performance-enhancing drugs? Were they chased down their driveway by their golf club-wielding wife, and did they have it coming? Are they racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or some other garden variety asshole? Do they club their spouses, their children, their opponents? Is your hero literally Tonya Harding?
So what can you live with where your heroes are concerned? At one point do you tear your posters down? Some people abandoned Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong after their downfalls, but many others did not. Some feel closer to them now that they’ve become a bit more fallible. For some fans, the grandiose myths of “Tiger” and “Lance” still represent something beyond Tiger and Lance, the flawed men who couldn’t carry all that weight.
As a fan of individual sports, you have no choice but to confront this ugliness, this humanity. You can’t hide your bad apples when you’ve only got the one apple; can’t claim that you’ve got a civic duty to root for the home team no matter what, “my country right or wrong.” It’s not easy to own your champion’s flaws, but sitting with this discomfort is healthy, keeps you honest, helps you figure out what you stand for—though it’s impossible to know for sure where your line is until it manifests as a gaping chasm with no chain bridge. I get up every day hoping Roger never forces me to find mine.
But there is a flip side to all this, and it’s lovely: geography and heritage determine which teams you root for, but you get to choose your champion. The process works a bit like falling in love—you can sketch out the perfect hero in your head, find someone who fits those qualities on paper (the world number one? the pluckiest underdog?), and you can even convince yourself that you’ve made your choice and you’re happy. And then one day, someone will come across your television that will make your heart skip a beat that you didn’t even know it had. And there they’ll be: your champion.
Your champion probably won’t be anything like what you expected, or anything like you thought you wanted. Maybe, and this happened to me, you’ll even hate them at first. That squeamish, childish ugh is really your immune system’s reaction to a swell of emotion that it can’t control or rationalize. It’s easier to process that intensity as hate, and that will continue for the rest of your time rooting for them, frustration that bursts like a neutron star every time they let themselves down, every time they cry, every time your heart crests so high you can’t rein it in. That asshole. I hate him so much.
The vicarious pain of sports fandom sucks, and heartbreak hurts even more when it’s concentrated in one person’s tears. When Icarus plummets with his artificial wings on fire, you realize this is no angel, no comic book hero. This is a mortal creature who bleeds like you, and he may have just lost his last chance at glory. It really hurts. It should. And before you know it, your larger-than-life hero, all pixelated and flickering over Times Square, has shrunk to no more than a brief spark in a silent universe.
Because the fact is, your champion has a deadline, an always-ticking timer in their little mortal heart that takes away the single most reassuring sentence in sports fandom: “maybe next year.” The team is eternal, constantly replenished with fresh blood. But an individual athlete does not emerge refreshed at the beginning of each season, ready to try again, harder better faster stronger. Like all real things, they only get creakier, slower, more easily-damaged.
Which means every bout in solo sports is drenched in desperation—every competitor has the sort of manic panic you see in the eyes of a winter-starved animal that is quite literally fighting for its life. A figure skater or gymnast has two chances, if they’re lucky, to grab the biggest prize in their sport. A tennis player has ten years in their prime. Your champion can only frantically tread water for so long. And because you signed your loyalty oath in blood—didn’t you read the fine print?—you have no choice but to follow them into the deep. So how is it that you would like to go out? At the pinnacle of life, before decline soils your legacy, like Yuna Kim? Or kicking and screaming to the last breath, like Michelle Kwan? Either way: it’s not up to you. Your job is simple: to be faithful unto death.
You have to be stubborn to choose individual sports in a world where “sport” is synonymous with “team.” You have to be all right with looking a little silly, a little lonely, a little out-of-step with the crowd. You have to be a bit like Wimbledon officials refusing to move the time of the men’s final out of the way of the World Cup final. Ridiculous, of course. But also kind of sweet, like a crooked little house that refuses to sell out and make way for condominiums.
We live out that stubbornness every year, at the Wimbledon Lawn and Tennis Club, Augusta National, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, because there’s something special and singular and devastatingly simple about a gladiator in moisture-wicking armor stepping into the arena, armed with nothing but their burdens, curious to see where they fit in the food chain.
Sometimes they’re battling nature, sometimes their opponent, sometimes—so much of the time—they’re mostly battling themselves. They’ll flail and rage and struggle, yelling at the umpire that it isn’t fair, yelling at their coach that I just can’t do this anymore. Like you, they’ll cry. Like you, they’ll panic. Neither of you will have any respite, nor any substitutions. Win or lose, we all exit the arena as alone as we entered it. It’s battle at its most basic, the struggle we were all born knowing.
And it’s beautiful.