It was nearing 6:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The setting was Court 17, one of the venue’s more intimate courts, a tidy tennis theatre in the round. World No. 37 Sloane Stephens, an American, was up against 49th-ranked Caroline Garcia, from France.
Garcia had won the first set 6-3. Now she served at 3-all in the second-set tiebreaker.
Stephens cracked a forehand crosscourt return winner.
Given these circumstances, in normal times, tremendous cheers would have erupted, even louder for a past US Open champion who with one bold swing appeared ready to at last turn the match around.
But in this case, no sound louder than a clap from Stephens’ coach, Kamau Murray.
Serving at 4-3, Stephens double-faulted. On the next point, Garcia thoroughly commanded a baseline rally with her forehand, moving Stephens corner to corner to snap up the point. The next two also went Garcia’s way, as she closed out the match, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
Meet the world of crowd-free pro tennis.
When I was 13, I played twice a week with a peer named Jeff. At our small park, our joke was that each person on the nearby lawn vaguely watching us was the equivalent of 1,000 people. Children counted as 500. Any crowd of at least 3,000 spectators kicked up the adrenaline.
Sloane Stephens at the Top Seed Open, in Lexington, Ky. (Getty Images)
The pros, of course, have built the skills and generated the results it takes to have earned thousands of onlookers. And what does that provide? Energy and focus. A boost and a message: We have paid money to witness and celebrate your great game. Bring it and we will reward you with even more appreciation.
Engagement and support are absent now. Athletes speak sometimes of tuning out a crowd. They also tune in. For surely, once Stephens had lit up the court with that bold winner, she would have relished the sound of thousands clapping and cheering as she sought to level the match.
Credit Garcia. Stephens had served at 3-2 in the first set, showing her trademark mix of movement and crisp ball-striking. In that game, beginning with a crisp down-the-line forehand return winner, Garcia broke at love, held, broke again and served for the set at 5-3. Stephens went up love-40—another situation that would surely energize any crowd. Garcia fought back, at 30-40 lunging deftly to hit a backhand stop volley winner. On her second set point, the Frenchwoman hit a 92 m.p.h. second serve ace down the middle.
And when Garcia broke Stephens to start the second set, a runaway was a possibility. After all, Stephens’ 2020 match record was 1-6, her lone victory coming to a player barely ranked inside the Top 500.
No player on earth, though, is particularly tournament tough these days. With Garcia serving at 3-4, Stephens broke. Again, in normal times, Court 17 would have been rocking at this stage. And again, lacking that connection, Stephens faltered, dropping her serve at love.
We’ve seen those cutouts of fans at baseball and basketball fans. Might they become part of the mix at tennis—perhaps also aided by music? In this match, Garcia was the one more in tune. But as her up-and-down form also showed, that’s no guarantee of what’s to come. Welcome to the most unseasoned late summer in tennis history.