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Sport Court: Should tennis answer Frances Tiafoe’s call for a more open match experience?
The charismatic American wants freedom of movement for fans and a rowdier on-court experience; are his reforms what the sport needs to attract new fans?
Published Mar 27, 2023
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Tennis is a sport built on traditions and is routinely slow to embrace change. Much is done to maximize spectators’ silence before each point, but American star Frances Tiafoe would throw all that out the window in the name of a more “open experience.”
"I think fans should be able to come and go and move around and speak during matches," he said in a Forbes interview last week. "Imagine going to a basketball game and not saying anything."
Tiafoe’s comments have become the talk of the Miami Open, held at the aptly named Hard Rock Stadium. Should tennis follow Big Foe’s lead? Let’s litigate the issue in Sport Court.
David Kane: To be clear, Tiafoe is not the first player to put this issue on the docket. The question of whether tennis isn’t sufficiently “rock and roll” dates back to the early 90s, when tournaments first began playing music during the changeovers. Now a common part of the spectator experience, even that change was met with criticism from, of all people, a young Andre Agassi at the peak of his “Image is Everything” powers.
Tennis is indeed slow to embrace change, in large part because few can agree on what to change—or how much. Andrey Rublev has one of the more down-the-line takes, arguing a stadium can only stand as much noise as it is built to handle.
“If it’s a court like US Open, because they are quite noisy there on the center court, but it feels normal. The court I was playing on today,” he said of Miami’s Grandstand, “one bottle dropped and you hear it disturbing you a lot. So, it depends.”
Tommy Paul was the most vociferous in backing Big Foe, having had his own issues with the sport’s arcane rules earlier in the week.
“Open the whole thing up,” he exclaimed after getting cautioned against chatting with his coach during a delay in play. “Let people walk around, let young people drink beers while we play tennis, and let me have a conversation with someone in the crowd. For me, it’s not always the best, but Foe could do those things for the whole match and still play great tennis. I think that’d be something really interesting to watch.”
Candidly, I wouldn’t mind more freedom of movement; the fewer cranky ushers I have to deal with, the better. But I like to think I “know” when to move and when to stay still. Might other spectators have the same tact? I’m not so sure.
Stephanie Livaudais: I don’t think I’d go as far as Paul’s “open the whole thing up” approach. But seeing so many players vocally agreeing with Tiafoe’s statements should at least prompt the decision-makers in the sport to pause and reassess the rules.
Also worth noting, Coco Gauff had some great points during her own press conference about how having loud music and allowing fan noise during points could affect the quality of the tennis:
“I'm not the particular player that's going to complain about noise. I definitely think it affects the tracking of the ball, so I'm not going to say that. Maybe a little bit of noise, I would welcome it. I don't know if we could do like full blasting music,” she explained.
“I definitely think it would be more enjoyable for the fans, especially in the stadium, but I don't know how players would be able to do that… The movement I think is definitely doable for me.”
Thinking back to the many tennis matches that I’ve attended, the crowds generally seemed to accept the tradition of lowering their voices and keeping to a hush, especially in more intimate venues or in the seats closest to the court.
But they definitely bristle at being held back from their seats during changeovers, and I tend to agree with them. If a fan has paid good money to see their favorites and can’t be in their seat by first ball, they are now missing out on the better part of a set—which is a bad look for the sport and a terrible way to promote attending a tennis tournament.
This is the issue that has a far bigger impact on fan experience, and the one that needs to be addressed before experimenting with music and letting fans shout during points.
The Verdict: Let’s test out free movement at the bigger tournaments with larger stadiums—like at the Miami Open or US Open—and see how fans and players respond. Our gut says that it won’t cause as much of a distraction in those larger venues, and it would be a high-value way to ease the sport into a much-needed change.