Sports

Why can’t we talk at the tennis?

Tennis is alone amongst professional sports in having its referee frequently yell at the crowd. Duncan Greive thinks that sucks.

It had not stopped raining. Big great drops beating straight down on a windless, humid Auckland day. Not great conditions for tennis.

But the rain ceased and cloud started to clear as the afternoon wore on, and a little before six the evening session was confirmed as going ahead on schedule. I walked around to the ASB tennis centre on Stanley St, and met up with a communications advisor from ATEED – Auckland Tourism, Events and Econimic Development – the ratepayer body who sponsored the event for $175,000 this year.

They’d invited me along to watch the ASB Classic, a beloved event at which I once held the speedgun radar in the mid-’90s. News stories talked of Ivanesevic serving so big it evaded the radars, when really my incompetence was to blame.

The event is a lot more professionally run now. We settled into a courtside box at the pretty, intimate arena, and ordered a bottle of sparkling wine. It was all pretty nice, you know?

The players came out – last year’s champion, surly Czech Jiri Vesely and his opponent, a preppy Spaniard with a slightly anxious countenance named Roberto Bautista Agut.

The pair were well-matched, early rallies lengthy, with world number 25 Bautista Agut working hard to counter the strength of Vesely’s first serve.

So: an absorbing contest, a fine venue, clearing skies – what else would you want to be doing? The spell lasted all of one game before I was reminded of the profound irritation that scars live tennis. Between points the umpire loudly reprimanded someone walking to their seat. “Please Sir! Could you sit down! Anywhere, any seat for now.”

The poor guy! Just walking to his seat, a paying customer, not an entitled oik in the corporate boxes. Now the whole stadium was looking at him, judging him for not knowing the snobby etiquette which exists around tennis.

That etiquette can essentially be summed up as: just sit still and don’t move or cheer or talk or display any emotion. It’s lame and completely unnecessary and slowly suffocating the sport.

Two games later the deadly bore of an umpire was back at it again, this time targeting the corporate hospitality – a bag of dorks, sure, but dorks whose largesse funds this and every other tournament around the world.

“Ladies and gentlemen in the corporate boxes please,” he exclaimed haughtily, “your voices are echoing down to the court.” Not voices! How could anyone possibly hit a yellow ball with the echo of a voice?!

Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia speaks with the umpire during her singles match against  Naomi Broady of Great Britain  during day three of the 2016 ASB Classic at ASB Tennis Arena (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Umpires: Tennis’ authoritarian tyrants

This performance persisted at irregular intervals throughout the evening, as it does at most tournaments around the world.

For what? There is nothing intrinsic to tennis which demands morgue-like silence. The level of concentration at the highest level is no different to that required for rugby or cricket, both of which are played – in this country at least – amidst a boozy chorus spectators yelling and heckling. Same goes for most popular spectator pursuits around the world.

If anything, singles tennis relies less on hearing as a sense, because there’s no team with which to communicate. The demand for decorum is really just a pompous hangover from The All England Club and whites and strawberries and cream and Empire and all that classist crap we mostly left in the 20th century.

The participants are supreme athletes at the top of their games. They might not like it if people move around or yell and sing. But that’s really beside the point: it will make going to the tennis more enjoyable for its fans, the very people who pay for the whole damn circus.

The only issue I can really see is ‘spectators moving around’ behind a player during service. You don’t want to momentarily lose sight of an object traveling at 200km/h. But this could be solved with a sight-screen, just as is done in cricket, which has a similarly paced (though much harder) object being thrown at closer range and seems to have figured it out.

After a couple of hours surrounded by people and hardly speaking to them, mainly out of fear of getting told off, I quietly slipped away during a break to change ends. I walked over the hill to the St James, a fine old venue at which shaggy stoner Kurt Vile played beautifully while the audience sang and swayed and drank and talked. He seemed to handle it OK.

The venue once had ballet and opera performers on the stage where he stood. Forms during which the audience still respectfully stays quiet and still during performances, and whose audiences are old and dwindling. If tennis wants to avoid a similar niche crowd – mainly white, mostly rich, slowly dying – it should consider just how important silence and stillness remains to its players. Or whether it could stand to loosen up a little in order to live.


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