Typically in the first week of the U.S. Open, many of the first and second round matches are more like mismatches. The high seeds–the Nadals, the Williamses, the Federers–are pitted against lesser knowns (or unknowns), and inevitably the better players dismantle their less skilled, less experienced opponents, barely breaking a sweat on their way to the next round.
The fans generally know this, but they buy tickets for these early rounds anyway because A) they’re cheaper than the later rounds and B) they came to see the best tennis players in the world playing on the sport’s biggest stage. Sure, 99 times out of 100, those top seeds will win, but the oohs and ahhs of a perfect drop shot or a bombastic serve or a long rally make it worth the price of admission.
In other words, people buy tickets to the U.S. Open to see a show.
This manifests itself pretty clearly in the way fans behave over the course of a match (sometimes eschewing proper tennis etiquette), and it plays out the same way every year.
The buzz at the U.S. Open, particularly during the evening matches, is unlike the typical live sporting event. Even from the nosebleeds, fans can feel the electricity as the players names are announced and they begin to warm up under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
As the match begins, fans want to see their favorite players do what they do best, because that’s what they paid to see. They want to see Rafa Nadal curl his extreme topspin forehand deep into his opponent’s court, just as they used to pine for Pete Sampras‘ lethal serve-and-volley game, or shake their heads as John McEnroe incorrigibly berated the chair umpire for a bad call.
But after a few games, when the buzz begins to wane, something strange happens. The fans, formerly rooting for the favorite, change their collective mind and throw their support to the underdog in the hopes that all their cheers and whistles and C’mon!s will encourage them to play their best tennis, and maybe make a match of it after all. (This switch happens so quickly that it’s almost as if the fans planned it together while riding in on the 7 train.)
This very phenomenon emerged yesterday afternoon as I watched the 3-seed Maria Sharapova, three-time Grand Slam winner, struggle against British teenager Heather Watson. The fans, watching their last match of the day before being swept out of Ashe Stadium, wanted to get their money’s worth. As Sharapova made several unforced errors, Watson fed off the energy of the crowd and jumped out to an early lead.
Sure enough, Watson won the first set 6-3 and was matching Sharapova shot for shot in the second set. At this point the fans, as they always do, realized that Watson was playing too well; if she kept this up, their wonderful day of tennis would be over and Sharapova–who had a legitimate shot of winning the U.S. Open–would be ousted from the tournament for good.
Slowly but surely, the generic and protean chants of “Let’s go, Heather!” became “Let’s go, Maria!” With a little fan support and some timely shot-making, Sharapova snatched the second set from Watson, 7-5.
By the start of the third set it was obvious Sharapova was in control and, barring a meltdown, would win the match. Predictably, the fans changed their allegiance again, seemingly feeling bad for the 19-year-old British upstart and how they had turned their backs on her during the second set. They suddenly admired her hustle, her gumption, the way she was making Sharapova earn the victory.
But it was too late; Sharapova had match point. In one final show of infidelity, the fans stood up and cheered Sharapova, asking her to put the cherry on the sundae that was an afternoon of exciting, competitive tennis. As she won the match’s final point and raised her arms in triumph, the fans smiled as they exited the stadium, likely forgetting the name of Sharapova’s feisty opponent they’d loved so much for the better parts of the past two and a half hours.
(As an avid sports fan, I can’t think of another professional sport where this happens. Gambling implications aside, I’ve never heard of someone rooting for their favorite team for the first few minutes of a game and then deciding the game’s not close enough, so they’d better root for the other team for a while.)
You may be reading this and thinking, So what’s wrong with that? The better player won and you got to see a great tennis match! Maybe so, but I’d be remiss not to tell you what happened when I was in attendance for the first round of the 2005 U.S. Open. Andy Roddick, the former champion and 4 seed that year, was all set to roll over his first round opponent, Giles Muller.
But nobody told Muller.
The fans did their classic flip-flop routine, at first cheering Roddick’s powerful serves but generously encouraging Muller. A few hours later, Muller, almost surreptitiously, had defeated Roddick in straight sets. (He’d go on to beat another American, Robbie Ginepri, in straight sets before losing in the third round.)
When I left the grounds and headed to the 7 train, I saw a gigantic billboard promoting the U.S. Open with Roddick’s face plastered on it. (Think Reebok’s 1992 Dan & Dave campaign.) Most of us fans, who had showed up hoping for a hard-fought first round match with Roddick prevailing, seemed to look at each other as if to say, What have we done?