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U.S. Open Players Face a New Foe: Silence

One of the United States Open’s most indelible moments featured one of the game’s greatest players sitting on a flower box by the side of the court. On his 39th birthday, Jimmy Connors was staging a riveting comeback against Aaron Krickstein. Sneaking a quick rest before the fifth set tiebreaker, he looked into the camera and boasted, “This is what they paid for, this is what they want.”

“They” were the stomping, clapping, screaming, delirious fans whose rabid enthusiasm helped give Connors the energy and psychological edge to topple his younger opponent. The U.S. Open is known for its passionate and raucous fans, so their absence this year will definitively change the tenor of the tournament.

“Playing in an empty stadium will be quite a change from what we’re used to, especially in New York,” said the 14th-ranked Petra Martic.

Unlike team sports, tennis pits two players head-to-head with no teammates so the fans can sometimes play an outsize role in lifting up or distracting players.

“This is uncharted territory as far as the majors go, and it will be bizarre,” said Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst.

In the early rounds on the outer courts, the sounds of silence will be less jarring, Martic said, because crowds there were typically much smaller. McEnroe added that younger players and even lower-ranked veterans were used to not having huge cheering sections. “I played a qualifying match in Japan once in front of 10 people,” he said.

Caty McNally, who graduated from the juniors tournaments last year, said she was used to playing in front of smaller crowds. “So I’m going to use that experience to my advantage,” she said.

Milos Raonic, ranked 30th, said that utter quiet might cause minor distractions: “On the outside courts, you’ll hear balls bouncing or the reactions from players on the courts next to you, but players will learn to deal with it.”

The most striking change will be in the Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe Stadiums, which feel cavernous and where struck balls sound different when the stands are empty. Jamie Reynolds, ESPN’s vice president of production, said that without fans making noise between points, the players might hear the commentators.

“They can even listen to the analysis and change their tactics,” he said. “We’re going to have to experiment during audio rehearsals with a glass window in the booth.”

Raonic said he believed that the players’ professionalism would mute the overall effect of a fan-less tournament, but said players who fell far behind early might “check out of matches a little quicker” without fans urging them on. “It will have some effect on players’ confidence and energy, especially on hot days,” he said.

Martic said that at least early on, the most popular players would have the biggest adjustment. “It will be tougher for the top players to play in a quiet environment,” she said.

Raonic added that the lack of cheering could help lower-ranked, lesser-known players. “It might help a player not having the crowd against him, heavily cheering for their top-seeded opponent,” he said.

Chanda Rubin, a Tennis Channel analyst, said the quality of play could even improve without the crowds. “There won’t be as many variables and players can just focus on the tennis,” she said.

But McEnroe said he believed that empty seats would rarely change the outcome. “Novak Djokovic will probably beat Borna Coric whether they play in front of one person or 15,000,” he said.

The player most likely to feel the crowd’s absence, McEnroe said, is Serena Williams. “Normally she gets riled up by the fans in New York,” he said. “Sometimes that hurts and sometimes that helps.”

At a recent tournament in Kentucky, Rubin said that all the players were less outwardly demonstrative but that it was most notable with Williams, the sport’s biggest star and personality.

“She focused more inward and in her words, she ‘did not get as crazy,’” Rubin said. “With some of the struggles she has had relaxing in bigger matches something different at the Open might be good for her.”

In Kentucky, however, Williams lost her quarterfinal match in a third-set tiebreaker, precisely the kind of moment where a wild crowd and a classic Williams roar might have shut down her opponent, Shelby Rogers.

In Ashe and Armstrong, the players will hear recorded cheers from the moment they enter the stadium. And Lew Sherr, the chief revenue officer of the United States Tennis Association, promises that piped-in sounds of the game will be as accurate as possible.

“We are working closely with IBM to create something unique,” Sherr said. Using past matches, IBM will connect each point to a comparable one from the past. If Williams earns a break point with a winner in the first set during a second-round day session, the computer system will seek a crowd reaction from a similar moment.

That will create a baseline for the sound board, which can be used at different levels by ESPN and in the stadium. “There will be a human touch with a lot of trial and error,” Sherr said, adding that they will adjust based on what players think. “We want to provide the adrenaline players are used to without becoming a distraction.”

The sounds will not be all ghosts of Opens past. Sherr said fans could use the tournament’s app to cheer on players, and those sounds will be layered into the audio soundtrack. Fans will also be shown cheering on nine video screens placed in the lower bowls of Ashe and Armstrong.

Those screens will be used “to bring some energy” to the stadium, Sherr said. At certain times, players will get a live connection to their entourage, which would normally be in their player’s box.

Additionally, fans may be able to use the app to ask players questions during post-match interviews. Sherr said some interactive aspects for fans at home might be used in the future.

Martic supports the tournament’s efforts to innovate and its openness to adjust according to the players’ desires.

“I think it’s great to have crowd sounds and even fan visuals,” she said. “Anything that helps to bring that normalcy of big matches would be not only helpful to the players, but make it more fun and interactive for TV viewers. I look forward to seeing it in person soon.”

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