This is when I disengaged: January 13, 2020, during the qualifying rounds of an Australian Open that shouldn’t have been played. Slovenian tennis player Dalila Jakupovic, twenty-eight years old and a world-class athlete simply by virtue of appearing in the event, collapsed to her knees in a coughing fit on the baseline during a match she was winning. Wildfires had been ravaging Australia for months by then; the smog around Melbourne had become dangerous to breathe even for people just going about their lives, let alone people pushing their bodies to exhaustion in the heat. A few months later we would all learn a horrifying lesson about trusting power when it says that everything will be fine, that we should live like the world isn’t burning. Right then though as Jakupovic was helped off the court in tears, I remember thinking that maybe, broadly, we shouldn’t be doing things like this anymore.
But the tournament happened anyway, and it featured the most normal-feeling result possible: Novak Djokovic won. This was the end of it. That spring the cancellations in tennis hit just like they did in every other sphere of our lives, incrementally at first and then all at once. We pretended until we couldn’t. By the time the tour should have been in Miami it had all gone dark.
A year later, we are indeed back in Miami. I have always loved this event for its warm aesthetics and promise of a lively spring and summer; it’s our first look at the tour’s top players tuned up for the busy part of the season, all set against palm trees and the beach. This year’s field has something oddly forward-looking about it as well, in that Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have all skipped it for one reason or another. Instead we get a window into the sport’s future: Medvedev and Tsitsipas are here and rolling, but so is a whole set of younger players taking advantage of a draw that’s more open than usual. By any usual metric, this should be fun. Is it?
To answer—whether we’re talking about this or doing basically anything else that we’ve been robbed of doing for a full year now by people who have spent that time saying as loudly and frequently as possible that they do not care if we live or die—we must decide what it means to move on. I will confess that I am not ready. Quarantine this last year has not been especially meaningful, even in the ways that long stretches of pain or grief can be meaningful. I have hurt and I have watched many others in my life hurt, and I have had relationships fray from forced distance or mismatched ideas of how much danger we’re in from one minute to the next. I have felt hopeless, and enraged, and whatever the feeling is when you realize that there will be no natural breaking point, that the cruelty of power in America is bottomless, durable, and patient. I did not get better at things during quarantine, or more mindful, or whatever else; I got angrier, and even now with a level head I believe this is the right response.
Yesterday though, I was presented with some version of a counterpoint. Jannik Sinner and Karen Khachanov were nearly half an hour into their third-round match and had somehow managed to play only two games. The points were long and brutal, and the temperature on court hovered around eighty-seven degrees in Florida humidity. Another long point began, and Khachanov slowly wrestled control of the rally and swung Sinner wide off the court to his forehand side, out of position.
It’s time for us to talk about Jannik Sinner. Nineteen years old from northern Italy, who at age eight became the country’s national champion for downhill skiing in the giant slalom. He went with his backup sport though and he’s already winning ATP titles, was a quarterfinalist at the French Open last year while young enough to have still played the junior version of the event, and currently sits ranked thirty-first in the world for what I figure will be a few more hours. You can see the skiing DNA in his lateral movement and balance. You can see something far more singular when gets his legs into his two-hander, which last year was measured as having the most average topspin RPM of any backhand on tour. He does not lose his temper, and has said before that he’s not in a rush to start winning. I am finding that last bit increasingly hard to believe.
Young as he is, he looks like he’s still got some filling out to do, especially when on a court with someone older like Khachanov. This made it all the more eye-popping when, from that outstretched position on the run, he managed to flatten out a forehand at a hundred miles an hour up the line for a winner.
The seconds after he hit the show-stopper felt overwhelming—are we doing this again? Enjoying things, reengaging with art and spectacle, returning to our old patterns like we aren’t the lucky ones who made it across a dark expanse? Last week Joe Biden announced that anyone can make a vaccine appointment starting in April, which is here. Relatively soon we will go indoor places with strangers again, and then masks will gradually come off, and eventually all this—five hundred and fifty thousand deaths and counting in this country alone across longer than a year of quarantine, along with countless other avoidable vectors of misery and indignity—will be framed as a great American victory. If you are looking to rewrite your memory of this time, or even just flat-out forget it, you’ll be able to. Encouraged even, by malicious people who deserve for us to remember things quite clearly.
That in mind, I think what I find wrenching about a player in possession of such colossal potential as Jannik Sinner is the simple fact of his youth. Say he plays for a decade, which feels conservative—where will we be by the end of it? When he’s defending an Australian Open title in 2035, will the Melbourne air have become more breathable, and will the already often-unplayable temperatures have cooled? Someone like Sinner reminds us that the world will not deteriorate quickly. It will happen slowly, and a lot of people will live to see it, and along the way there will be breathtaking flashes of talent and artistry and skill that show us what we stand poised to lose. Think of Jakupovic, conceding a match critically important to her livelihood because the atmosphere wouldn’t allow her to play—it’s already begun.
Between you and me though, I do feel reinvigorated watching the tennis in Miami this week. As I sit here the broadcast is showing an impossibly red south-Florida sunset, beneath which Stefanos Tsitsipas just covered the full diagonal of the court, ad-court baseline to deuce side near the net, to take a ball out of the air. Him too—he floats on his toes like Roger used to, and looks poised to carry forward that singular playstyle that fuses the net-rushing Sampras era with the grinding endurance of the Djokovic years. It’s beautiful. We can engage in as much pointless doomerism as we want and it will not change that this is beautiful.
The prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba has a phrase both for when things are going well and when they aren’t: hope is a discipline. She means it in a context in which tennis is beyond frivolous, of course, but we should find our own footholds where we can. I’m trying, I really am. However nonsensical as it might sound, something loosened inside me yesterday, watching Sinner battle back from a set down to win in the heat.
I am not ready to be swept back up in things yet, and I am not sure that I ever will be. I think though that I am inching toward trying, an internal reopening to keep pace with the world’s. That will not involve forgetting anything from this last year, because it can’t. We can’t. We can be reminded though that, even apart from the heavy things in our lives we’ll want to recover and preserve for as long as we can, there are smaller joys too. Smaller joys like seeing Jannik Sinner’s career stretch limitless before him, and celebrating as he fulfills or exceeds each fragile expectation. And smaller joys, like the return of a full tour schedule at a critical moment for both the old guard of the sport and the younger generation of genuinely exciting talent. And smaller joys, like this brilliant blue court under the lights.