Sunday, October 25th, 2020

The buzz is missing

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Deep in the fifth set, with 4 hours and 28 minutes on the clock, Tsitsipas is serving break point down to stay in an epic third round encounter. He manages to hold serve and force he and Coric into a match deciding 5th set tiebreak. A double fault ridden tiebreaker sees Tsitsipas lose to Coric, who came back from 2 sets to 1 down and saved 6 match points to advance to the fourth round at Flushing Meadows. These grand slam early round epics are what tennis fans love about the sport of tennis. But for at least this author watching the match there was something missing. Namely, that hum, that buzz of the New York crowd fixated on a gripping tennis match that went into the early hours of a New York Saturday morning.

The culprit is of course COVID-19.

As with most sports, COVID-19 has caused havoc to the 2020 tennis calendar with the season really only restarting in earnest last week with the Western & Southern Open, which was also played at Flushing Meadows (it is usually played in Cincinnati).

While most sports have managed to restart over the last few months, tennis was a little bit slower to the party given its unique international footprint and the individual nature of the sport. It is through a lot of hard work from various stakeholders that the tennis season has restarted at all and that it has restarted should be commended as people’s livelihoods depend on it.

So while it is great to have tennis back, unlike other sports that have managed to find a path forward during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that tennis is really suffering from a lack of crowds. This is especially so in a grand slam context like at Flushing Meadows, where the vast Arthur Ashe stadium (the biggest tennis stadium in the world) is essentially all but empty, except for the players, officials and a few support/coaching staff. The US Open is known for its buzz of the crowd on hot summer New York days and evenings, and for 2020 that buzz is gone.

Watching a match on TV suddenly is no longer the same experience, as the rhythm/beat of the match is flat. The lack of a crowd reinforces that a crowd is critical to the tennis viewing experience. The crowd emphasises the rhythm of a match, it reinforces the momentum swings that the players have. This is amplified by the fact that during a point the crowd is silent but then there is usually an explosion of noise between points, especially after an enthralling rally. That critical element of the tennis match is gone, and how so critical it is.  Without the buzz of the grand slam crowd, the matches being played seem like glorified practice matches.

The COVID-19 induced lack of crowds at sporting events, at least in this author’s opinion has affected tennis more than other sports. Maybe it is the individual combative nature of tennis that without the supportive element of the crowd, the importance of the contest seemingly disappears.

This is distinct to other sports such as Motor Sport (e.g. F1, Indy Car and Supercars), Golf and Cycling that are still as ever enjoyable to watch despite the lack of crowds. Jon Rahm’s 66-foot birdie putt to win the FedEx playoff at last week’s BMW Championship was an amazing sporting moment despite the crowd not being there.

So too was Collin Morikawa’s win at the PGA Championship, in particular his 16th hole (par 4) tee shot that reached the putting surface, a Happy Gilmore style moment.

The US Open tennis is always such an exciting tournament to watch, especially from an Asian Timezone as one can over breakfast watching top flight tennis. It is one event to attend on this author’s bucket list.

Renowned New York Times tennis writer Christopher Clarey tweeted during the Tsitsipas-Coric match that “The crowd would be going wild, believe me”.

While we can believe the crowd would be going wild, without the crowd there the battles on the Flushing Meadows courts do not seemingly reach the same heights as they usually would (from a viewing experience perspective).

It is important for the US Open and other tennis tournaments to be played during this time, but crowds coming back to tennis cannot come soon enough (pandemic pending) as without them we realise how important they are to the event experience.

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