Tennis

Tennis rules requiring hushed silence during play still defer to days of long pants and crinolines, nobility and amateurism. In an era of fiery and petulant stars, surely it’s time to move on. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Why are Australian Open tennis fans being silenced?

An Andrey Rublev “explosion”
An Andrey Rublev “explosion” during his fourth-round match against Alex de Minaur.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Each year, with numbing regularity, the Australian Open is blighted by the same damn questions. Is Novak Djokovic the greatest of all time? Are Australian crowds uniquely disruptive? Should corporal punishment be applied to those who scream “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!” between points? To which I can only reply, Yes, Don’t Care and Probably, while adding that columnists or TV pundits who promote such tedium be summarily fired.

But at the risk of being tedious myself, I have my own question, one which I quietly ask each year whenever I watch a chair umpire admonish spectators for coughing: why is crowd noise eccentrically prohibited from tennis stadiums?

With the exception of golf, itself born of self-conscious gentility, no other major sport gags its crowds in this way. It is against the hysterical thrum of many tens of thousands that a soccer player will take their penalty. A footy player kicking from the boundary will do so in a bath of unsolicited advice. In England, football fan groups, aggrieved by what they see as the sanitising effect of all-seater stadiums, lobby the government for the introduction of “safe-standing” areas to improve atmosphere. In December Luke Littler, then just 16 years old, threw for the World Darts Championship before a rowdy scrum of pissed humanity dressed as traffic cones. 

And remember 2020? So strange and enervating for players was the absence of sporting crowds during the Covid-19 lockdowns that in several leagues around the world, canned audience noise was piped through stadium speakers like a sitcom’s laugh track. “I feel like it adds something,” Matt Shelton, the Los Angeles Lakers’ director of game entertainment, told The Athletic back then. “And it probably adds a lot more than you realise it does in the flow of the game. It makes the game a little more natural.”

Crowd noise isn’t just a feature of sporting events, it’s a romanticised and formalised phenomenon itself. The homes of certain teams develop forbidding reputations for the hostility of their fans; conversely, meeker fans are accused of denying their team a psychological advantage.

During the recent cricket World Cup final in the largest stadium for the sport on the planet, the vast and uniformly Indian crowd were, for much of the game, deathly silent – a fact that buoyed the hearts of the Aussies and confirmed for them their control of the game.

Some players become dependent on crowd abuse to energise them and may cultivate their own villainy to better seed it, while others may allow the crowd “to get into their head”. Heckling can be sly or unsubtle; terrace chants witty, euphoric or abusive. The relationship between certain players and crowds – the psychology of pantomime – is part of the mythology of many sports.

Anyway: a player without crowd noise seems like a singer without a band. But for some reason, tennis players see themselves less as rock stars and more like heart surgeons, requiring a reverent silence when performing.

Why is this? Well, tennis (or its earlier variants) was conceived as aristocratic leisure – like polo, fox hunting or holidaying on Jeffrey Epstein’s island. It was an activity enmeshed in pompous codes of etiquette and viewed less as competition and more as a sign of status – and an opportunity to socialise with others of good breeding.

It was also, for a very long time, emphatically amateur. While the Wimbledon tournament began in 1877, it wasn’t until 1968 that professionals joined the world’s major tournaments. Professionalism was thought vulgar – amateurism didn’t preclude talent, it just meant that those playing the sport didn’t have to play for money.

In the late 19th century, Spalding’s Lawn Tennis Annual – a collection of tournament results and player profiles – was first published. In 1922, it included the game’s official rules and codified its etiquette. “Bear in mind that tennis is an amateur sport, played for its own sake and not for profit,” it read. “Most tournaments are run at a loss. The matches give pleasure to the spectators and players and your attitude toward these contests should always be governed by this consideration.”

It perhaps should not be surprising today that the game’s etiquette extends to rendering the crowd as mute as possible, given the game wasn’t conceived with any public in mind. It was a closed and privileged world. But when crowds joined tournaments after Wimbledon (and when the spectators were of the same gilded class as the players), Spalding’s annual defined expectations for their behaviour: “When you are a spectator at a tennis match, you are one of the ‘gallery’ which has assembled to see good tennis played. There are well-defined (although unwritten) laws of conduct for the gallery, which are as binding upon them as the laws of tennis are upon the players and officials. Only by your co-operation in observing these unwritten laws can the perfect playing conditions be secured which make for the successful conduct of a tournament and your enjoyment of the matches you witness.”

It goes on: “A tennis ball in play moves very fast, and other moving objects in his range of vision distract a player by making it hard for him to follow the ball’s line of flight. Therefore, the ladies particularly, should be careful to keep parasols and fans in the background.”

Presumably in 1922 the authors could not foresee, exactly one century later, Nick Kyrgios stopping play during the Wimbledon men’s final to appeal to the chair umpire about a lady made distracting not with a parasol but, according to Kyrgios, heroic quantities of alcohol: “She’s distracting me when I’m serving in a Wimbledon final.”

Which one?

“The one that looks like she’s had about 700 drinks, bro.”

(Following defamation proceedings, Kyrgios was forced to apologise to the spectator and agreed to donate £20,000 to charity.)

 

A question: Are there any other athletes as prone to extravagant petulance as tennis players? To be sure, other sports have their precedents. I’m thinking of Manchester United’s Eric Cantona and his flying kung fu kick into the chest of a fan, and the NBA’s infamous “Malice at the Palace” in which Indiana’s Ron Artest sparked a giant melee between players and fans after seeking some vigilante justice in the stands for being struck by a flying water bottle.

Still, it’s seldom you see athletes destroy their own equipment as often as tennis players do – and oddly, more decorum is expected from the game’s fans than its stars. During the Andrey Rublev–Alex de Minaur match last weekend, the volatile Russian was spoken about by commentators Jim Courier and John McEnroe like he was an IED or human volcano. I lost count of the explosive-related descriptions – fuse, lit, explode, ignite – and they seemed genuinely excited by the prospect of Rublev’s temper finally expressing itself like a giant Catherine wheel, shards of racquet and obscenity sprayed colourfully about the court. “You can destroy one racquet. You can destroy a chair. But you can’t destroy a racquet and a chair in the same match,” the great Russian former world No. 1 Marat Safin once said. “Otherwise, this is the tennis of a sick person.”

I’m no psychologist, but might crowd noise not have a regulatory effect upon the obviously tortured psyches of tennis players? Might the crowd’s unfettered passions replace their own tantrums? This transference would have the additional benefit of improving the safety of the ball kids, whose work is performed under the perpetual threat of copping a ball to their still-developing windpipes.

And so I say: ungag us. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 25, 2024 as "Not quiet right".

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