The Roar Of The Crowd
The role of the crowd has entered into sporting cliché folklore. People talk of fans as ‘the extra player’, of a soccer crowd ‘blowing the ball over the line’, of away teams confronting a ‘wall of sound’ as they enter the stadium of a passionate home club. And in recent decades the influence of the crowd has grown in tennis too.
In tennis, the role of spectators has traditionally been less dramatic than in team games, but as the sport has grown over the five decades since it became fully ‘open’, so the atmosphere has developed, often to reflect the character of the country or city where tennis is being played.
As early as 1979, the US Open director Bill Talbert feared a riot in the raucous Louis Armstrong stadium as umpire Frank Hammond defaulted Ilie Nastase for a third punishable offence. It was a night match against John McEnroe, which the New York public had eagerly anticipated, and Talbert recognised that on a Friday night and with much alcohol having been consumed, the locals were unlikely to take a truncated spectacle lying down. So he reinstated Nastase, but the Romanian still lost, as McEnroe won in four sets.
Perhaps the first tennis crowd spectacle came at the Houston Astrodome in 1973, when 30,000 spectators packed the arena to watch the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ between the ageing male chauvinist Bobby Riggs and the trailblazing feminist Billie Jean King. King, then at the height of her playing career, was carried in on a sedan chair by four bare-chested men, her tennis dress studded with Rhinestones. It created a magnetic atmosphere, and King’s straight (three) sets win proved a powerful blow for women.
If that sounds a far cry from the sedate crowds that watched white-clad gentlemen and ladies hitting a ball gracefully in front of a handful of genteel observers, as late as 1989 the British player Chris Bailey was prompted to bemoan a lack of support during his five-sets defeat to Argentina’s Alberto Mancini in a Davis Cup tie in Eastbourne. In his post-match press conference, Bailey blamed all the ‘old biddies’ in the crowd who had watched and clapped politely but who had given him precious little vocal encouragement. Even a decade later, the director of the Eastbourne WTA tournament, George Hendon, was dissuading his players from hitting souvenir balls into the crowd after matches for fear that someone of advanced years might not react quickly enough and get hurt by a flying gift.
If the New Yorkers are a hard crowd to please, they are left in the shade by the Parisiens, in fact the unwritten rule at the French Open is: don’t get on the wrong side of the fans. It’s one of the most knowledgeable crowds in world tennis, as most spectators are members of French tennis clubs, and on the first Wednesday the pitch of the cheering goes up an octave as the French Tennis Federation lets thousands of schoolkids into the grounds.
But being knowledgeable doesn’t prevent partisanship, as many a player knows to their cost. Even just an inspection of a mark in the clay is enough to get ‘le public’ whistling, and an argument with an umpire is largely futile, as the jeering from the stands makes it hard for player or umpire to hear each other.
The most celebrated victim of this was Martina Hingis, who at just 18 was looking to complete her set of major titles, but got on the wrong side of the crowd in the 1999 final against Steffi Graf. With the shy Graf behaving in exemplary fashion, 15,000 spectators demonised Hingis, who had to be dragged back from the locker room by her mother for the presentation ceremony, so traumatised was she by the experience. Graf’s pithy comment to the crowd was ‘I feel French’ – that is clearly the key.
Such stories beg the question as to whether tennis should emulate other sports and let fans cheer when the ball is in play. Most aficionados are against it, but it does occasionally happen. For example, at a Davis Cup tie in 1993 in Arnhem, Switzerland’s Michel Kratochvil wanted to serve at set point in a particularly fractious third set tiebreak in the decisive fifth rubber against the Dutchman Martin Verkerk. With the umpire unable to get the angry home crowd to calm down, he simply ordered Kratochvil to serve, which he did, he won the set amid pure bedlam, and went on to win the match.
That hasn’t caught on, but if the atmosphere isn’t right, some players just can’t play. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took eight attempts to reach the French Open semi-finals, but when he got there, he came on court after an epic Nadal-Djokovic five-setter, the atmosphere was flat, Tsonga couldn’t get going, and David Ferrer picked him off with ease. Who says the crowd doesn’t play a part in tennis matches?