Ah, tennis. On Wednesday night, Australia’s Nick Kyrgios gave everybody hope that he’s finally transitioning from Bad Boy of Australian Tennis Number (um, what number are we up to again?) to a serious grand slam contender.
One of the main reasons learned tennis watchers were wildly impressed by his straight-sets win was all the distractions Our Nick managed to endure.
There was a desperate, lacking-actual-talent YouTube celebrity yelling for no apparent reason until he was ejected. There was a low-flying helicopter. Nick’s opponent broke a shoelace. The umpire’s microphone made a strange sound. Kyrgios faltered on four break points after that unimaginable microphone glitch.
Almost unendurable … if you’re a professional tennis player.
YouTube moron aside, the other distractions can’t help but return to the fact that tennis players – and I’m not singling out Kyrgios here; I’m talking about all of them – really are the pampered poodles of professional sport.
Still clinging to whatever Victorian English sensibilities started the sport, absolute silence continues to be required as the players go about their work.
A helicopter flew by. Really? The opponent snapped a shoelace. Is this a joke? The old timeless classic of somebody dropping a glass in a corporate box that happens every other match and receives death glares from both baselines.
Video: Djokovic confronts a noisy crowd member in 2012
Why exactly is total silence demanded during tennis?
Dive into forums or ask tennis fans and the answers range between tradition and the intense concentration required during points, but I’m not buying that last one from the drop. How many other sports require split-second decisions, incredible ball skills and so on, without the luxury of silence?
In cricket, batsmen have a fraction of a second to assess a fast-moving hard red ball that could physically hurt them while the crowd performs Mexican waves, blows trumpets and other shenanigans. The only concession is a white screen behind the bowler’s arm so the batsman can literally see the ball.
In NRL and soccer, the crowd is noisy, seething, engaged. Sure, in baseball, it’s quiet because everybody’s asleep, but the crowds at NFL, NBA and NHL ice hockey are explosions of noise, colour and movement. These athletes perform, regardless.
What about Aussie Rules? The noise as Richmond stormed to the flag last year was off all charts, and yet players managed all the usual astonishing magic of their craft as 100,000 people roared, swayed, waved flags and screamed.
Maybe the problem in tennis is the same as the one golfers face on their backswing. If you demand absolute silence, complete concentration, then when it doesn’t happen, it wildly throws you out. Perhaps tennis should let in the noise, so that the players become conditioned to dealing with it, like almost every other professional athlete.
Or maybe not. Venus Williams told ESPN a few years ago that she loves the silence. “There’s something very special about tennis in the quiet,” she said. “There’s that tension that everybody feels, the sound of the ball, the sound of the footwork is very special in sports. I do enjoy the quiet. Especially the more important the moments, silence says it all. Personally, I don’t think it should go away.”
There is something magical about an entire stadium sitting breathlessly to see who will win a crucial exchange. But there are also realities of life. Like ambient outside noise, people coughing, audio feedback in an umpire’s microphone.
The Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York was roofed over a few years ago and became very noisy, through echo and angles, all noise amplified from inside and out. British star Andy Murray was asked about it and immediately shrugged it off.
“The players will adjust,” he said. “The players will deal with it. You get used to stuff. As an athlete, that’s what you do.”