The US Open in New York City is the noisiest of the four Grand Slams. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Would tennis fans have more fun if they could behave like football fans? Would a player walk off the court if people heckled or yelled during a serve?

Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times investigated this issue just in time for the traditionally noisy US Open and he joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: Why is it that the expectations regarding fan behavior in tennis have always been so different from expectations at a ballpark or in a basketball arena?

“The sound of each tournament is one of the things that makes them unique.”
– Ben Rothenberg, reporter
BR: I think it has a lot to do with the origins of tennis as a Victorian-era recreation of the upper classes on the British Isles when it started. It was seen as a gentleman’s game, as a quiet game, a polite game to be played by people in society, and it was a very reverent, respectful atmosphere that surrounded the players, and you still see that at Wimbledon.

Around the world, as different cultures have adapted the game, there’s a little bit of a different style everywhere you go. New York is obviously one of the louder ones, but those messages still remain anywhere you go in some shape or form.

BL: Is it fair to say that most of the players with whom you’ve discussed fan behavior felt that they could adjust to noise and movement while the points were in progress?

BR: Well, most of the players said if there was constant, low, muffled crowd, it would be fine. It’d be disruptive for them if a sudden, loud movement from someone screaming as they’re about to make a shot, a sudden boom from outside the stadium or music suddenly playing in the middle of a point — those are things that would disrupt them.

BL: This is probably the point where I should mention Stan Wawrinka shouted at a fan, “Seriously, shut up!” during action at the Open this time around.

BR: Yeah, he was playing the second night match and the crowd there get’s a little more buzzed at the night goes on, which makes sense. Stan was playing after midnight at that point, and there was a fan sitting pretty near the court. He was sort of heckling or shouting — I don’t know what he was saying. And Stan had had enough and said, “Shut up, seriously, shut up!” The match wasn’t exactly going his way at that point. And that’s the kind of thing you probably wouldn’t ever hear a player have to say at Wimbledon.

BL: Andy Murray brought up a potential problem when he said that if fans got too loud, players wouldn’t be able to hear the spin of a ball coming toward them. Did any other players think of spin?

BR: They have. Other players did talk about that, and that’s one of the things that is brought up when grunting is discussed as an issue in tennis. Martina Navratilova has been very outspoken about this, saying that it’s cheating if you make a loud grunting sound when you hit the ball. It masks the sound of the ball coming off your strings. And the players definitely use all of their senses — maybe not smell — but they use a lot of their senses during a point to give them the best chance possible.

BL: You haven’t had a player say, “I can smell a drop shot?”

BR: I haven’t yet, but I’m ready for it now.

BL: The US Open, now in progress, has been more raucous than the other major tournaments. Are any players concerned that further loosening the rules or traditions regarding when fans can leave their seats or how much noise they can make create a circus atmosphere?

BR: There’s a split [amongst players]. In terms of leaving your seat, I know there’s a bunch of players who’ve said they’d be up for that changing. Others are a little more stodgy, but there’s definitely a good split there.

BL: Novak Djokovic told you that he appreciated the way different tournaments sound and feel different. I wonder if encouraging fans to bring on the noise would erase some of the distinctions between say, Wimbledon and the US Open.

BR: No, that’s true. I mean, if Wimbledon starts blasting YMCA during changeovers, it’s gonna lose a lot of tradition and appeal. The sport is played in all sorts of different countries and all sorts of different surfaces and environments, and I think there’s always gonna be a pretty good diversity there even if noise gets uniform. But for sure, the sound of each tournament is one of the things that makes them unique.

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