Exhausted, bereft at having parted from my daughter in Vancouver, jittery with another long-haul stretch of no smoking (I had endured one during the flight from Vancouver to Tokyo), I reached for the remote and the headphone in front of me.
Iusually don’t watch anything on the in-flight entertainment screen during a flight. I prefer to read. But I was too wired, too tired, to concentrate on this occasion. What the hell, let’s give this a go!
Scrolling through what was on offer, I found live sport. The US Open was on. Novak Djokovic was playing his compatriot Laslo Djere in the third round at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. It was September 2 in New York.
Hurtling across time zones, I didn’t know what date it was where I was. Perhaps, at 35,000 feet above the ground, on a long flight, date and time, and place become immaterial. Or mindscrambling.
I don’t know if you have, but I have never watched sport like this. It was an ethereal, otherworldly, yet unsettling experience. Watching sport is all about the context in which one watches it. The matter is situated in ground reality. So high above the earth, unsure of date, place or time, erases the context.
I have watched at stadiums, on TV – at home and in bars and pubs – on a tablet, even on a tiny phone screen (only highlights and reruns, never live). The thing is that, even if I am watching on my own, it is a communal activity. It fosters a sense of belonging, of tribalism. Here, as I watched on the tiny screen in front of me – LED, high-definition display – the passenger next to me and in front of me and two rows further up were watching a Hollywood film or a show. There was no common purpose.
Fandom in the 21st century is mediated through text messages. That enhances the sense of feeling part of a community. ‘Did you see that?!’ ‘How on earth did he do it?’ ‘Ooof, breathtaking!’ Banal, yes. But communal. Here, there was no phone. I had not paid for the Wi-Fi. Besides, the timing was not appropriate for the people I would have wanted to correspond with.
Amid the blue and white outside the window, headphone on (excellent sound), New York seemed so remote and yet so real.
Perhaps it is because I am dim, but it took me quite some time to come to terms with the fact that I was watching live action, in a real tennis match, with real players, in a city I knew well, while being so far away from where I would usually watch sport. There was no ground beneath my feet.
It was a long, enthralling match, a white-knuckle five-setter that lasted all of 3 hours 45 minutes. Djere came out swinging. He won the first two sets. Djokovic seemed to be on the brink.
Then he did what he does: he became Djokovic, the man who has won his past eight five-set matches. He returned the unreturnable, slid and twisted, played serve-and-volley, drop shots, overheads, found the angles, found the corners, lasered in his serve. If it had seemed like mission impossible, Djokovik made it plausible, winning - inevitably - in five sets.
All this while, I ate my food (was it dinner or lunch, according to my body clock? It could even have been breakfast), drank my drink, the small folding table of cattle class travel unfolded. The action on the screen, however, had engulfed me, The sense of strangeness had ebbed.
When Djokovic unfurled another physics-defying forehand down the line, I involuntarily rose to applaud. But I couldn't. I was restrained by my fastened seat belt.
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