Just one small example of the pollution of professional tennis…
If you’ve ever watched a professional tennis match from the cheap seats, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve experienced something bizarre bordering on surreal. Whether at one of North America’s largest tennis venues, the Tennis Garden at Indian Wells or Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, or just at a local tournament like San Jose’s SAP Open, which I attended last night, your cheap seat, in the early rounds of a tournament, will be separated from the tennis court itself by rows and rows of empty seats. You’ll sit trying to track, with your woefully inadequate human eyes, a fuzzy yellow ball less than 2-5/8 inches in diameter that is often traveling 100 or more miles per hour. In the many lengthy pauses between the action, when players towel nonexistent sweat off limbs and facial skin and pretend to examine each and every one of those 2-5/8-inch golden orbs, you’ll scan those rows of empty seats, some of them in the very first row, and you’ll scan the dotted speckle of fans sprinkled over the rest of the seats in the venue, and eventually your eyes will land on the people sitting dutifully in their assigned seats 10, 15, even 20 rows further away than you are and you’ll think to yourself, “What the hell are those people doing up there? There’s no way they can see shit from up there,” and then your next thought will be, “Wait a minute, what the hell am I doing here? I can’t see shit either!”
Welcome to professional tennis. For years, tennis luminaries like John McEnroe have implored tournament organizers to loosen assigned-seat restrictions for the betterment of the sport. They have wisely suggested that, if someone buys a seat but does not occupy it, it should be made available to those fans who actually took the time to drive to the venue to see the action live. If Fatso Bloatard, who seems to have so much money he can shoot $200 for a tennis ticket and then blow off the matches, actually decides to raise his bulbous ass off his Strata-lounger and have his driver take him to the stadium, then all he’s got to do is show his ticket and the cheap-seat loser like me who has been occupying his seat can dutifully return to the skies of the upper deck. And of course, everyone knows that by the time the action stretches late into the evening, as it often does, when the celebrity singles players wrap up their match and take their custom apparel, their Gucci tennis bags, their towel-worn skin, and their magazine-cover contorted screaming faces back to their five-star hotels, ain’t no chance Fatso is getting out of that chair. So when the late-evening match—typically a doubles match—starts, instead of a sprinkling of disconnected, distant spectators spread across the entire mass the stadium, you would have a cluster of devoted fans leaning in on the action, charging the players’ energies, and generating an infectious energy of its own. And, perhaps even more importantly, TV audiences would not be looking in on a sport that, judging by all the empty seats, generates about as much enthusiasm as a rerun of “Hondo,” but would instead look in on something akin to a college basketball game, albeit with long breaks in the action for players to towel themselves off and “examine” the balls.
In case you haven’t figured it out, I’ve had several of these surreal early-round cheap-seat experiences myself, including multiple visits to both Indian Wells and Arthur Ashe Stadium. But my experience last night in San Jose—and it’s very difficult for me to write this, because I am both a San Jose native and a tennis fan—absolutely took the cake. With my wife and several friends, I went to see the evening session semifinal matches of both the singles and doubles. First off and unfortunately, the overall turnout was pretty lame, so there were plenty of those $200 seats sitting empty in the front sections of HP Pavilion. We had secured excellent baseline seats for $67 each, and from there we looked out on a venue about 1/3 occupied. During the first match, the singles semi that Andy Roddick managed to fritter away by playing the coddled, spoiled tennis brat role to a tee, we learned that the doubles semi that was supposed to follow had been cancelled because of an injury to James Blake. The tournament organizers managed to pull together an exhibition match to fill the bill—a repeat of the semifinal that had been played earlier in the day: Jarkko Neimenen and Rohan Bopanna vs. Stephen Huss and Ross Hutchins. Now, one would think, given that this was an exhibition match, an 8-game pro set between players who had already played and were planning to do little more than have fun out there, and since half of that 1/3 occupancy was already on its way out of the building, this would be an ideal opportunity for the tournament organizers to garner a little goodwill and jack up the enthusiasm and the energy by announcing open seating for the remainder of the evening. An ideal opportunity that would also have given the volunteer ushers the rest of the night off. Instead, the ushers remained in place, dutifully checking the ticket stubs of everyone re-entering any section of seating and ensuring that the dispersed, disjointed, disengaged audience remained just that—even the poor bastards up in Row 18 of the upper deck. I mean, it was 10 p.m., and it was an exhibition for heaven’s sake!
The crime here is that tennis is a glorious game. It is art and drama and dance and all the trappings of sport—speed, strength, power, and finesse—all rolled into one. But in so many ways, whether it be the cheating, obnoxious “win-uber-alles” participants one encounters at the club level or the misguided, elitist ignorance one encounters at the pro level, it is a clear, flowing mountain stream that is forever being shamefully polluted. So often, those of us bending to drink from its waters end up instead turning our noses up in disgust.
“We should reach out to people to try to go after the fans the way other sports do. Because we can't just depend on the fact that it is a great game.”—John McEnroe