“Listen to the crowd”

It was a marathon tennis match; it might have been a gladiator duel in ancient Rome.  From Tuesday, June 22 – Thursday, June 24, two tennis players engaged in the longest tennis match of all time.  Finally, after 11 hours, five minutes, John Isner defeated Nicolas Mahut, 70-68 in the fifth set.  The valor of their play was only matched by the gratuitous and mindless display of selfishness on the part of many of the fans.

Playing on a non-lighted court, the match was suspended on the first day of competition due to darkness.  There is nothing abnormal about that at Wimbledon.  But on Wednesday, the players resumed play at 3 pm local time.  Of the four major tennis tournaments, the French Open and Wimbledon are the only two that require the contestants to “play out” the final set; i.e. no tie-breaker, and they continue playing until one or the other is up by two games.

At 6-6 in the fifth set, Isner served and “held” (won his serve).  Mahut responded by doing the same.  This was not thoroughly unexpected.  They both had overpowering serves that day, and as in so many matches, it would be decided when one or the other player “tanked” while trying to hold his serve.

Like clockwork, each player held his serve.  Afternoon turned into evening, to dusk and eventually to the near darkness of night.  By 9:10 pm, the score in the fifth set was an unprecedented 59-59.

As outstanding as the performance of the players was, the conduct of many of the fans was something less than exemplary.  This is not unusual at either professional or amateur sports events.  The fans rose to their feet, not uncommon when play is outstanding and the crowd has been locked into their seats for hours.   What was disturbing were the words that they were uttering.  The rhythmic chant came from the stands: “We want more; we want more.”

On the surface , these words were complimentary.  It is almost de rigueur at musical concerts; the performer(s) leave the state with what is billed as the final song; the fans stand, continue to clap, and chant for more.  The musician(s) then return(s) to the stage for what is often a spectacular finale, but it is final, and when it’s over the night is done.

While the performances of the two players at Wimbledon that Wednesday evening continued to be scintillating, with both diving for balls (particularly Mahut), it was clear that they were running on only adrenalin.  If I had to give a title to the late Wednesday play, it would be “two dead men walking.”  As the set reached 55-55 and moved on, it was clear that there was still considerable more daylight by Wimbledon standards, so the players and the officials had to scramble for a way to bring play to a halt for the day; the rulebook simply had no provision for this situation.  Essentially what everyone did by formal or informal agreement was a “work slow-down.”  The injuries were there, be they real or psychosomatic, and nature is not concerned with deadlines; it called, and  the players took restroom breaks.

They Shoot Horses

Perhaps two words summarize what the players deserved; appreciation and empathy.  The vocal fans picked up on the first one; they seemed thoroughly immune to the second.  Their “we want more” implied that they wanted the players to continue into the dark until one (or both) of them dropped.  I was reminded of the 1969 movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” where the crowd cheered on marathon dance couples as they deteriorated both physically and psychologically.

As the Wimbledon crowd was chanting “we want more,” the announcers (albeit a bit slap-happy) lavished praise on the audience for being such true tennis fans.  Were they also victims of fatigue and acting in a fashion that at best was irrational?  We don’t know, but we do know that there are legions of stories of fans behaving badly, and the U.K. has more than its share of such incidents.

We might do well to redefine what being a “good fan” is.  The prevailing wisdom, whether applying to soccer, baseball, football, basketball, hockey, or most other sports, is that the best fans are the ones who are loudest and most physically active.  They’re chanting (often prompted by an electronic stimulation from the scoreboard) and often engaged in rhythmic movement such as “the wave.”   Such movement is designed and interpreted to be a form of engagement.  However, it limits their ability to focus on what’s happening and blocks the view of the more cerebral fans who want to analyze and anticipate the play, always engaged in “what-ifs” and frequently unique ideas for strategy.  These observers may also be relating the play on the field to what happens “in the course of human events.”

I’ll give a pass to the fans at Wimbledon on that Wednesday afternoon because, like the players, they had never experienced such longevity in a "The Thinker"match.  They were dealing with their own questions: (a) do I go to the bathroom, (b) do I get something else to eat, (c) do I check with the baby-sitter, etc.  But the larger question is how television and radio announcers and commentators evaluate a crowd.   It’s easy to be loud and to be speaking to the players in three-word phrases.  However, the best fans may be the members of the print media just a booth or two down from the announcers.  Their job is to be focused, engaged, detail-conscious, and capable of assimilating information and relating events to other happenings in the world of sports and beyond.

So let’s praise John Isner and Nicolas Mahut and give a pass on the behavior of both the fans and announcers.  But let us remember that sports is as much food for intense thought as it is a forum for loud and simplistic chants.  I’ll be happy when the day comes when the announcers says, ‘Listen to the crowd;” we hear little or nothing; and the announcer praises the fans for exercising their brains rather than their lungs.