Voice of a U.S. Open tennis fan

by Romana Cvitkovic

Being a tennis fan can be both exhilarating and cruel. Just ask anyone sitting in the upper deck of the world’s largest tennis venue, Arthur Ashe Stadium, at this year’s U.S. Open. From that high up, the players look more like specks playing ping pong than tennis, but the atmosphere of the crowd is electrifying as cheers for both players echo off the grandiose stadium.

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

As a devout tennis fan, we are addicted to the euphoria, the stress, and the drama of the sport. Sure, we go for the entertainment value and the sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. But what makes tennis unique is that it is an individual sport. Instead of cheering for a basketball or football team passed down through generations, we gravitate towards individual players who reflect parts of our own personality, such as the fierceness of Serena Williams or the humor-driven game of Novak Djokovic. With no teammates and coaches to look to, each player is out on court alone, putting their hard training and mental strength to the ultimate test. And that’s where fans come in, making up the difference.

With essentially no off-season and no hometown advantage for any one player due to constant travelling, tennis is a year-round battleground. Players enter tournaments on a weekly basis, travelling from continent to continent, in search for glory. A player may play six or more matches in any given week, possibly win the tournament if they are lucky, catch a red-eye flight to the next city, and start fresh without a day off. As fans, our schedules reflect their grueling weekly battles, and we progress with them through their journey of elated wins and deflated losses, week after week. Loyalty and patience are as much of a factor in a fan’s life as euphoria and stress, and the players are dependent on the crowd’s energy as they travel the globe.

After her epic win over Maria Kirilenko earlier this week, 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur recalled the intensity of the history-setting second set tiebreak (which ended 17-15 in Kirilenko’s favor), and the crowd’s influence on her psyche.

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

“I lost track of the score. Didn’t know at one point if I was serving or receiving or when we should be changing ends, what was going on … it was super-exciting. The crowd was really into it. Couldn’t really hear myself think at times because it was so loud out there.”

2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro echoed Stosur’s thoughts on fan contribution. “I really enjoy the crowd, the fans are crazy, and they are very excited … the crowds are full every match. For me, that helps me to fight.” In reference to playing on the intimate Grandstand stadium, the third largest at the site, he added that “we are pretty close to the fans and we can hear every word.” Del Potro goes on to reminisce about his win in the final two years ago stating that “I was two sets to one down and [the fans] help me, started cheering more for me than Roger [Federer], and that help me a lot to win the final.”

(Photo by Romana Cvitkovic)

Prior to his title in Flushing Meadows that year, Del Potro was a relative unknown in the United States. But loyal fans who had watched him mature from the junior circuit to the men’s tour caught glimpses of his brilliance early on in his career. Although celebrity players such as the Williams’ sisters and Federer generate high television ratings, the back courts of tennis are where stars are created. This is the place where casual spectators turn into lifelong supporters of players, following their careers unwaveringly through all the ups and downs.

And no two other players have more ups and downs than France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils. Although utilizing vastly different playing styles, they are self-proclaimed entertainers, winning and losing in equally spectacular fashion. As a fan, it’s both maddening and gratifying as you can never anticipate which version of the player will strike: the controlled genius or the self-imploding fatalist. But we continue to support them. Why? Because although their potential exceeds their current form, it may one day translate into a history-making run or title at a Grand Slam, as it has with Tsonga during the U.S. Open.

In our increasingly transient and insular society, it’s welcoming to identify with a particular player. When we equate ourselves with someone who has made a breakthrough, we revel just as deeply in their joy as they do, and in some parallel universe believe we had something to do with their win. And that’s all fans require sometimes: belief in a player. It’s not always about cheering for the winner; they’ve learned to win whether they are in a stadium viewed by 5 or 50,000 people. Rather, we cheer for the underdog because that is when a fan’s voice makes a difference.