Few sports spend as much time debating unwritten ‘etiquette’ rules as tennis. Largely tied to the ‘gentlemen’s game’ reputation the sport has held since its inception, tennis has clung to tradition for dear life amid a vastly changing sports culture, one that allows and encourages far more expression than any generation prior. Not only are the players themselves anchored with a list of unwritten etiquette expectations to adhere to (see; the underarm serve debate and the discussion of Frances Tiafoe having too much fun on the court in Vienna.) This also extends to the live fans, who, several times over the last 12 months, have drawn the ire of the tennis purists for their ‘unfair’ support of certain players over others.
The debate over what is and isn’t appropriate fan behavior came to a head in the wake of world no. 103, Frenchman Hugo Gaston’s remarkable quarter-final run at the Paris Masters last week, a run that was buoyed by the consistent presence of feverish support from the home fans. After battling through two final set thrillers in qualifying, Gaston made an inspiring run through the field in the main draw, with wins over 12-seed Pablo Carreno Busta and the hottest youngster in tennis, Carlos Alcaraz, before finally coming unstuck in a tight straight-sets defeat to world no.2 Daniil Medvedev.
The story here should be Gaston himself, who played like an absolute dream this week, dismantling his opponents with his unorthodox drop shot-heavy style and his astounding resilience (exemplified with a stunning 0-5 to 7-5 comeback in the second set versus Alcaraz). Instead, much of the online discourse has been about the Parisian crowd, who gave Gaston the superstar treatment throughout; and his opponents a less than welcoming atmosphere.
This hasn’t gone over well with some at-home observers who have flocked to social media to voice their displeasure:
Now, I think it’s fair to say that a live crowd being too ‘into a match’ is a genuinely unique complaint to tennis. No one would think of jumping to Twitter to lament a Boston Celtics crowd for being ‘too noisy’ when LeBron James was at the free-throw line. The most direct comparison might be the (outside of the UK) rarely referenced sport of darts, where world no.1 Gerwyn Price is frequently vociferously booed by fans in the middle of his throwing motion (the equivalent in tennis of a crowd heckling a player in the middle of his service motion on every point). Neither of these examples will you see outcry because managing hostile spectators is just part of the gig; some can’t, but the best can.
Medvedev has become somewhat renowned for his ability to fight through a lively partisan crowd, several times overcoming the boo-birds at the US Open and battling through again this week to finally put the brakes on Gaston’s surge proving that it is far from an insurmountable obstacle. Heck, world no.1 and maybe the game’s greatest player Novak Djokovic has practically made a career out of playing in a 1 v 10,000 atmosphere and coming out on top. Crowds of this nature are also commonplace in Davis Cup matchups, and it isn’t as though a visiting side has never come away with a win.
The players themselves seem to be mostly encouraging, or at least accepting of the energetic atmosphere, with young American star Sebastian Korda remarking on Twitter that the crowd was “Hands down best crowd I’ve ever played in front of” following his third-round exit. Alcaraz acknowledged in an Instagram post after his collapse against Gaston that the crowd had played a factor, describing the reaction as ‘difficult’ and ‘heavy’ (translated from Spanish), but said that were lessons to be learned for the experience. You do have to feel for Alcaraz, who has been the darling of the tennis world since his fantastic quarter-final run at the US Open.
However, it’s worth noting that the 18-year-old was himself a huge benefactor of the crowd support in New York, particularly in his 3rd round victory over then-public enemy number one Stefanos Tsitsipas. Alcaraz’s conflicting experiences are the perfect example of how a fired-up crowd can be one’s friend one day, foe the next. One of the perks of both the men’s and women’s tours is that it is about as well-traveled as one can be. Almost every player will have their day as the adored hometown boy or girl at some point in the season.
Would it be ideal if the spectators gave each player an equal amount of support and grace? Maybe, but that’s a pipe dream. Ultimately, they’re called ‘fanatics’ for a reason, and once they pay the price of admission, it is their right to cheer who they want to cheer and jeer who they wish to jeer. There is a line; of course, anything that constitutes genuine abuse should be condemned and put a stop to immediately. But only in tennis is a passionate, engaged, invested crowd viewed as a negative. Maybe it’s time the game embraces the passion of the fans instead of wishing it away.