Sorry, Rafa, But Raucous Crowds In Stuffy Sports Are The New Norm
"Off the charts," Novak Djokovic said as he walked off the court in the ATP Cup in Sydney over the weekend. "I have never experienced such a support in my matches ever anywhere, and I have played the biggest stadiums in tennis, and this was something different. I’ll remember this experience for the rest of my life."
It's safe to say that Novak's gushing statement wasn't hyperbole. At the expense of Spaniard Rafael Nadal, Djokovic had been helped to victory by what will go down as one of the most raucous, unified crowds ever seen in a game where spectator neutrality has long been an unwritten rule. Chants of "Novak, Novak, Novak," were just the tip of the iceberg in a sea of support that helped team Serbia to a comeback win over the Spanish.
The event was widely lauded as providing one of the best atmospheres ever seen in an Australian tennis event. But the nationalistic element of the tournament, particularly in a city as multi-cultural as Sydney, saw the emergence of increasingly partisan crowds in some games. For most, it simply added to the atmosphere. But Nadal wasn't having it.
"Honestly, the crowd was fantastic every single day but sometimes people from some countries, they probably don’t understand how the tennis goes," Nadal said. “They think it’s about football or this stuff and atmosphere in tennis is different, no?
"The respect for the players should be there, and at some point I think the respect with small part of the crowd have been not there."
In a way, it's easy to see why Nadal would be somewhat perplexed by a partisan crowd turned thoroughly against him in what was supposed to be a neutral country. After all, it's not his fault that Sydney just so happens to have a very large, very passionate ethnic Serbian population.
Let's not forget either that barely 2 months ago, a similar atmosphere was carrying Rafa and team Spain to an emphatic victory at the Davis Cup finals in Madrid.
Tennis is far from the only sport that's had to change its mentality towards spectator decorum to endear itself to a new generation of sports fans. Cricket is perhaps the best example of the atmosphere you can generate when you allow people to express themselves in the stands, but other, traditionally 'stuffy' sports are seeing success from changing their ways.
The Phoenix Open in golf, which in recent years has become notorious as the most raucous event on the entire PGA tour, now attracts in excess of half a million fans over a weekend — many of which are students.
Logistical issues aside, there's no doubt that the ATP Cup is good for Australian tennis, good for team tennis, and a positive step towards showcasing the sport to many who probably wouldn't otherwise pay attention. Sometimes, this means players may end up facing adversity in places that they weren't expecting to find it, but that's how the cards fall, and you have to accept that it might be worth playing through if it's good for the sport. What is a champion, after all, if they're not versatile and adaptable in hostile conditions?