“Learn how to respect players, learn how to respect people, you shut up, you be quiet,” implored Novak Djokovic to a group of rowdy British fans in his post-match interview at the Davis Cup. Djokovic had just dueled with the crowd while disposing of Cameron Norrie – and Great Britain – to ensure Serbia’s progression to the semi-finals. ‘The World Cup of Tennis’ certainly has a different decibel counter to individual ATP Tour events. Bringing the noise can elicit a drama that usual tennis etiquette restrains elsewhere.
As tennis advances into a new era beyond the respectful rivalry of the Big Three, the kitchen sink dramas and sonic boom serves of the next generation need a soundtrack to elevate the play. It can’t be as partizan as the Davis Cup, but Frances Tiafoe thinks a new band of supporters can come through if given freedom of expression. “I think fans should be able to come and go and move around and speak during matches,” the American said in a recent interview with Forbes. “Imagine going to a basketball game and not saying anything,” the 25-year-old added.
Tennis does have a precious reverence for silence during points and requires a rather draconian lack of movement by its punters. It was Andy Murray who explained how the ears are important in assessing the spin and speed on the ball. In the same way that screams of ‘you’re the man’ are a sacriligeous act on the golf downswing, chuntering from the audience between serves or when about to strike can’t be tolerated. Then again, the whooping and hollering will only come out in other ways. Witness the din at Flushing Meadows.
The full-on noise of New Yorkers is notorious among the Grand Slams, overriding the etiquette that has cocooned tennis players in a cauldron of the ball-hitting soundscape. “It’s just, like, noisy. I can’t even hear my team,” said Nick Kyrgios last year. The Australian has been forthright about how important it is to embrace the crowd to animate the sport rather than suffocate it.
Kyrgios managed to make the Wimbledon final last year and very much brought the crowd into the catfight against Stepanos Tsitsipas on a memorable Saturday evening on Centre Court. Although he was suitably muted for most of the final in front of the royal box, the 28-year-old memorably picked on a lady in the audience rather than his opponent. “The one that looks like she’s had about 700 drinks,” was the plea for silence from the Wild Thing.
The only time organised chaos did break out at the serene English garden of the All England Club was during the London Olympics of 2012. The tennis temple of SW19 became the venue for the gold medal match between Roger Federer and Murray, although it felt more like a World Cup football knockout.
“Forget the decorum of genteel Wimbledon. This was a gladiatorial contest with no quarter given – and that was just the crowd,” wrote Reuters at the time. The resident DJ chose Massive Attack’s Unfinished Symphony as the walk-on music for the final. This was tennis for the out-of-towners that needed an event not just a game.
It must have been a shock for Federer who had quietened the Scottish Bravehearts in his whites at Wimbledon against the same opponent four weeks earlier. However, despite his love of tradition, the Swiss has never been an advocate for total library ambience. “If there was more screaming and more shouting and more movement, actually, that would be OK, too. I think it’s gotten to a point where everybody wants to be super silent. I don’t disagree with that. I mean, it makes for better atmosphere,” the 20-time Grand Slam champion noted in 2017.
Tennis has that aura of respectability that for some brings too much conservatism with a capital C. It still relies on an aging audience and it is imperative to engage younger fans who might be unimpressed with the current traditions. Millennials and Gen Z will make up 41% of the world’s population by 2030. A cohort that likes to be heard will not necessarily embed itself within a sport that demands solemnity from a very high chair of authority.
The season has ended with a crescendo of color and national fervor in Malaga. When the game, set and match starts again in 2024, maybe Rafa Nadal will be waiting to return to what he calls show business. “This sport is a show, the sport is a party for a lot of people, for the fans,” the Spaniard said during the Covid-controlled Italian Open in 2021. The 23-time Grand Slam champion is right. It could be time to raise the roof a bit more.