“How happy are they just to be playing again?” John Lloyd asks. “How much do they want it?
Could our new normal result in top players not wanting to play on Arthur Ashe Stadium—one of the most iconic tennis courts in the world, the very essence of ambition for any player wishing make the game’s big time?
Former British No. 1 John Lloyd thinks it is a possibility. Lloyd participated in the summer restart of tennis as coach to the San Diego Aviators of World TeamTennis, a gathering which took place at one venue with a very limited number of spectators allowed to watch. He had an up-close look at how players on all the teams were reacting to the lack of crowd participation that has always been part and parcel of professional tennis.
“I’m guessing but I have a feeling some of the big players might actually ask not to play on Arthur Ashe,” Lloyd told me from his home in Fort Lauderdale, FL. “It’s vast. 23,000 empty seats. What kind of atmosphere does that create? You get depth perception problems to start with, and I would think some players might struggle with the emptiness of it all. A smaller court, even with just coaches and a few officials, would create a better atmosphere. It would make it easier to focus.”
Lloyd feels a Grand Slam with no crowds, and therefore no stimulus, will reveal a lot about players.
“How happy are they just to be playing again?” he asks. “How much do they want it? Will they be as fired up as Kim Clijsters (who played for the WTT’s New York Empire) at The Greenbrier? Kim was unbelievable. She beat Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin easily. The way she went after the ball almost made you think she could win another Slam.”
Mats Wilander, the 1988 US Open champion, believes the environment could deflate some of tennis’ showmen—good thing Gael Monfils and Nick Kyrgios didn’t make the trip, I suppose. Players who feed off crowd energy could be disadvantaged.
“But I think it will be so interesting with no crowds—who can handle it and who can’t?” asks the analytical Swede. “We will find out who really enjoys just hitting a tennis ball; just playing the game for the love of it, or for the competitive streak in their nature like Andy Murray. Andy would want to win at anything, anywhere because he just wants to win all the time, no matter at what.
« But there are some players out there who just play because it is their job. For them the love of the game is not as deep and, with no crowds to gee them on, their motivation might drop.”
Wilander honed in on Milos Raonic’s success in the Western & Southern Open, which was held at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center.
“No crowds obviously hasn’t bothered Milos,” says Wilander. “He is so focused—so into working out his own game to fit the moment. It’s clear that lack of atmosphere has made little difference to him.”
That may not be true of No. 2 seed Dominic Thiem, who suffered a stunning 6-2, 6-1 loss to Filip Krajinovic in the second round of the Western & Southern. Serena Williams lost 6-1 in the third to Maria Sakkari—but would that have been the score if a packed crowd had been there to cheer for her?
For some players, whether there is support or not seems to be immaterial. I never saw a more stunning example of this than at the 1999 Davis Cup final between France and Australian, which was played in a small indoor arena in Nice with a low ceiling and shocking acoustics. When Cedric Pioline played Mark Philippoussis, the incessant noise from screaming French fans bombarded the ear drums to the point of pain. But the big Australian played the match of life and blew Pioline off court.
Asked afterwards if he had not been worried by the noise of the crowd, Philippoussis replied, “All I heard was the beating of my heart.”
So anything is possible—which, if that can be called a prediction, seems appropriate for this US Open which will go down in history as the strangest ever. Or will it? We do not even know. The French Federation were hoping to allow 20,000 spectators into Roland Garros for the French Open, which is due to begin in the last week of September. But with a spike in COVID-19 cases in France, that may be pegged back to 5,000.
And the Australian Open? Tennis Australian boss Craig Tiley has plans for every contingency, from limited crowds to no crowds and almost certainly none from overseas because of the need to quarantine for two weeks. Will foreign players travel that far? The crystal ball is very murky.
But the focus will be sharp at Flushing Meadows for those players who adapt and stay motivated. Grand Slam titles are at stake, and the chance of winning his 17th and thereby close the gap on the absent Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (18) is undoubtedly what brought Novak Djokovic to New York.
Will there be an asterisk next the eventual champions names, especially as the women’s field is short of defending champion Bianca Andreescu, Simona Halep and other top players? Serena Williams doesn’t think so, and she may be right. How many people, looking at the list of Wimbledon winners today, remember that Jan Kodes won in 1973 when 81 ATP players boycotted the Championships? Not, I suspect, too many. Kodes won—that’s all that matters.
One thing is sure: there will be some fierce and highly competitive tennis, even when Ivo Karlovic, the Florida-based Croat who won played first match on the ATP Tour in 2000, and Frenchman Richard Gasquet, now in his 18th season, walk on whatever court they are assigned like a couple of old pros, look around, and say, “Oh, so what else is new?”
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