The 2020 US Open was about sound, because there was so little of it inside the practically empty USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The pandemic locked fans out of the grounds. Errant balls, normally coveted souvenirs, bounced aimlessly and loudly along the concrete alleys. The fans that were in attendance—players were allowed to bring a maximum of three guests—may as well have not cheered at all. When Dan Evans won a crucial point during his second-round match, he looked at those in his player box, clapping softly in approval, and yelled back, as loud as he could, “SAY SOMETHING!”
Then there was Frances Tiafoe, who still wasn’t used to the tranquil environment after four sets of his second-round match. At 2–2 in the fifth, John Millman struck a lob that Tiafoe, planted in the mid-court, opted to let drop behind him. When the yellow sphere landed on the white baseline, Tiafoe yelled in horror—“OH MY...”—and then stopped, realizing that he was speaking at two people sitting on a deserted bleacher.
Later, Tiafoe earned a break point. An explosive exchange of crosscourt forehands between two of the fittest players on tour ensued, with Millman finally blinking and sending a shot wide. But with no linespersons to signal that the ball landed out, and no true fans on Court 11 to erupt in applause, Tiafoe’s celebration of a well-earned break was awkwardly delayed.
“Obviously I’m a guy who kind of feeds off the crowd,” said Tiafoe later that day.
This past August, Tiafoe and thousands of fans returned to New York City for the 2021 US Open. It, too, was about sound. Let me rephrase that: SOUND. Because after a muted edition of the late-summer classic, you’d have thought concerts were being held inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, rather than tennis matches.