Tennis: Chaos of the lawless courts: Buster Mottram on the turbulent atmosphere of the United States Open

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AT WHAT other tournament in the world would a female journalist be given permission to enter the men's dressing- room, a woman box-holder breast-feed her child and the Beatles be allowed to perform on the stadium courts (then grass) just before the event.

There is no tournament remotely comparable with the United States Open, held since 1976 at Flushing Meadow, nor can its public be likened to any other. Fred Perry referred to them as 'the most boisterous crowd in the world'. They are first and foremost sports fans rather than tennis enthusiasts. Very few play tennis or have an association with the game, which was more likely pre-1978 when the event was held at a private club in Forest Hills. There was a tennis tradition in the past, when many of the spectators were club members, that no longer exists.

According to Vijay Amritraj: 'Today's public has a ball-game attitude. They have a few beers and throw the cans around. People are there for a great time. Compared to the Wimbledon crowd who are very tennis-orientated, New Yorkers don't understand the subtleties of the game or appreciate good shots. It is inconceivable that the public in Europe would applaud double-faults as they do at the US or shout between points and sometimes during the point itself.'

The New Yorker John McEnroe accepts that the public don't know much about the game but went on to say: 'The drama and excitement is greater in New York than at any other tournament in the world.' Jokingly he added: 'There would be a riot if it rained. The public don't get a refund, as is sometimes the case in European tournaments.'

From a player's perspective you either love the hype of the Big Apple or detest it. There appears to be no half-way house. The environment of a tournament can affect a player, none more so than in New York City. How else can one explain Borg's failure to capture the Open, particularly when it was played on clay - one of his best surfaces? His dislike of New York was well publicised. It definitely affected him psychologically and prevented him from achieving 'the right state of mind' to win.

On the other hand Connors thrived on the drama and razzmatazz of New York. He manipulated the crowd with theatrical displays of courage and showmanship. They loved it and gave him all the backing they could, which was very demoralising for even the most mentally tough of his opponents. Commenting on the relationship between the player and the crowd, the coach Nick Bollettieri said: 'You can't win without the support of the crowd or at least without their neutrality. If you give 'em the bird they'll be all over you.'

Nastase was one such player who irritated the crowd with his mannerisms and obscene gestures. One of his matches at Flushing ended in mayhem. Police and security guards were required to quell the angry mob. Middle- aged Jewish women brawled with one another, even Rabbis jostled with other spectators. Inebriated Irish-Americans hurled coins and cans on to the centre court. It took a long time to restore order. To soothe this angry rabble the umpire was sacrificed. This is the only time that I have seen an official removed in this way because of crowd reaction.

The crowd have always tended to be aggressive in New York, though. When the tournament was staged at Forest Hills some kids tried to force their way into the club-house 'to see how the rich folk live'. Violence ensued and a scuffle outside the gate ended in a fatal stabbing. Can you imagine this happening in Rome or London?

New Yorkers have always liked to feel they are 'part of the action'. Because of this and their familiarity with team games they believe that the more noise and hype they can create the better the spectacle. Americans are less inhibited by tradition than Britons. This is witnessed by the informality of their dress (or lack of it). I have seen box-holders with their shirts off and women in bikinis. One woman breast-fed her child during play, totally oblivious to anything.

An incident at Forest Hills reflects on both the tournament authorities and the crowd. Permission had been given to stage a pop concert on the stadium courts at the club just before the US Open. In those days the courts were grass and susceptible to wear and tear. When the Beatles landed by helicopter at the club they were pelted with jelly beans. For weeks afterwards lawnmowers were clogged up by the sweets. It is unlikely this would have been allowed at any other Grand Slam event.

New York is hooked on celebrity. They even staged a pro-celebrity event on the day before the tournament began until very recently. Senator Teddy Kennedy, Andy Williams and the likes bashed the ball around the court partnered by top tennis pros. So significant was this event considered to be that it was televised nationally. It was given as much prestige as the real thing.

We may laugh at some of the gimmickry and deplore the crass commercialism of the US Open but who is to say that the tournament is not a life-enrichening experience for all concerned?

The author is a former British Davis Cup player.