Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Welcome to the Thunderdome!

When the US Open moved from the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills to Flushing meadows it shed whatever vestige it had of manicured lawns and country clubbers. Aided by players like Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King tennis became the people's sport. Not only was the tournament not ever like Wimbledon, it didn't even try. After the move to Flushing, the permanent adoption of hard courts, the change to yellow tennis balls, and a loose code when it came to player's dress, the US Open became the most dynamic sports event in New York City, and also its most profitable.

When it opened in 1997, the behemoth Arthur Ashe Stadium (the biggest tennis stadium in the world) made strangers of us all. Alienation came to tennis. The players didn't even know we were up there, and we could hardly see them in the distance (never mind being able to judge line calls with any degree of certainty), so there was no reason to maintain the accustomed silence during points. The upper promenade of the stadium featured a constant flow of humanity in search of their seats (and more often occupying other people's seats to try to get a closer view), and constant conversation that seemed to just float up to the nearby clouds and escape to the heavens.

But in the last three years the USTA decided that a roof had to be built so that play could continue during the unstable New York weather that often plagues the fortnight. The acoustics of the place have changed forever. Now that the roof is in place, the thousands of random conversations that take place among the fans (especially during the night sessions) has no place to escape. They bounce around the stadium starting like a background buzz and ending up like a foreground clatter. The other night, in the middle of an ESPN match telecast, John McEnroe complained about the noise, mentioning that it felt like he was in Yankee Stadium.

But the USTA has no one else to blame but themselves. They have built the US Open as the hippest of events where loud and brash is in, After all, it is New York City! To this end, there are videos played on giant jumbotrons during changeovers, together with loud rock music while the players take their break. Often a roving camera travels the stadium giving us a free of charge fifteen seconds of fame.

Allow me a classical music anecdote (after all, it is primarily a music blog):

When Sir Georg Solti brought the Paris Opera to the MET for a series of performances of Mozart's La Nozze di Figaro, he knew he would have to fill the cavernous Metropolitan Opera, an auditorium much bigger than any European house. What he did was the opposite: he asked the orchestra to play quietly, and he begged the singers not to shout. The little, precious sound that they created managed to fill the house. Those that were fortunate to be present during those fabled performances were all on the edge of their seats, bending an ear, trying to absorb it all. These were probably the most engaged audiences in the history of Lincoln Center.

Back to tennis:

Now that the stadium roof is here to stay, perhaps the powers-that-be should re-think how it packages the US Open. They don't have to create excitement. The real excitement occurs inside that rectangular blue and green court ruled by white lines.

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