Since professional sports resumed earlier this summer, their governing bodies have attempted in various and varyingly awkward ways to maintain the communal atmosphere of live events without spectators. At baseball games, the stands have been ornamented with cardboard cut-outs, making the stadium look like a super-sized game of Guess Who? And in the NBA bubble, LED screens showing “virtual fans” wrap around the perimeter of the court, appropriate for a sport with an especially large social media footprint. In both cases, the mandates of a public-health crisis have made for a bizarre tableau by imbuing a usually thrilling variable with a degree of artifice. Which is not to say the level of play has suffered; only that, without the palpable energy exchange between athletes and fans, team sports have had to derive camaraderie from within and among the teams themselves.
Perhaps nowhere is the gulf between the pre-and-post pandemic experience wider than at the U.S. Open. In a buttoned-up sport, the Open crowd is the closest thing to a proverbial “12th man”: raucous and unabashedly partisan. It magnifies the superhuman forbearance required to succeed in an individual sport characterized by self-sufficiency. Some players, like fan favorites Roger Federer, can count on the crowd’s support; others, like Novak Djokovic or Daniil Medvedev, have reveled in its disdain. But now, during match play, stadiums are populated only with players, their coaches, masked linesmen, and the usual banners of J.P. Morgan Chase signage.
A tournament without fans has made for a more gritty experience, bringing into sharper focus the attrition that characterizes a professional tennis match. The sounds of each ball strike are unobscured by the din of the crowd, and while simulated applause plays between points on the stadium courts, it sounds muted, programmatic in a way tennis matches, prone to wild swings in momentum, are decidedly not. For the most part, when television cameras pan back and show the entirety of Arthur Ashe Stadium, its near-24,000 seats emptied of all but players and their close-knit camps, you get the sense not of deprivation but of confrontational intimacy, as if you’re watching gladiators battling in a vacant colosseum.
It’s under these same circumstances that all tennis careers begin, as 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens remarked in a press conference last week, likening the atmosphere to junior-level competition. “It’s very back to girl’s 12s, where it’s like you and your parents, the other girl you’re playing and their parents.” In this way, a crowd-less U.S. Open is tennis in its purest distillation; anyone who ever played the sport at the junior level will recognize the sense of isolation and fragility it generates, the way silences between points and fist-pumps from a parent or a coach are pregnant with private significance. In a sport where there are few sources of encouragement other than the voice inside one’s own head, the mentally sturdy learn to weather this solitude early, developing a language of self-affirmation independent of spectators. Others — a junior tennis also-ran like me — would more often buckle under pressure.
But so too do the sport’s greats. Last week Novak Djokovic, the world’s best player and odds-favorite to win the tournament, fell down a break in the opening set of his match against Pablo Carreno Busta and whacked a tennis ball out of frustration, unintentionally hitting the backcourt lineswoman in the throat. Minutes later, he was disqualified. It’s impossible to say whether or not the presence of a crowd would have made a difference — perhaps making Djokovic less vulnerable to impulse or the umpire less inclined to enforce the rules on a player of his stature. But without a chorus of fans, or teammates to confide in, or anyone but himself to blame for the lapse in judgment, the incident clearly demonstrated the uniquely fallible nature of a tennis player, even one as brutally machinelike as Djokovic. Meanwhile, some lesser-known players have thrived in this backyard atmosphere —since it’s not unlike the one in which they usually play — while marquee stars like Naomi Osaka have admitted to being rattled by the quiet.
But still, the cream rises. On the men’s side, the second, third, and fifth-ranked players made it through to the semifinals. And Serena Williams, at 38, is deep into yet another Major, still chasing that elusive 24th Major title — in the face of which she’s been rendered unusually anxious, especially in her last two visits to Flushing Meadows. After a plucky three-set win in the Fourth Round on Monday, she looked to the crowd and saw just her husband, Alexis, and her three-year-old daughter, Olympia, pointing proudly at her mother. In the twilight of her distinguished career, one imagines Serena wouldn’t have it any other way.