The Big 12 Athletic Conference is permitting spectators to engage in "non-abusive disruptions" during its tennis matches in a effort to be more fan-friendly. The Conference is encouraging spectators to become loud and boisterous during points, and supporters of this initiative say that tennis needs to break with tradition and encourage more spectator involvement to become as fan friendly as basketball or football. They point to the Davis Cup precedent in which matches can be very rowdy and that student athletes can learn and grow from overcoming the challenge of a disruptive crowd. Crowds can be very spirited in between play during college matches anyway so why not take the extra step and allow the crowd to be vocal during points?
Critics of this new rule point to the long tradition of tennis as a more civil sport than many others, and that the world needs more civility, in regard for etiquette not less. The beauty of watching tennis is the quiet during points that allow those watching up close to hear the strings ping, sneakers squeak, and players grunt and groan. Crowds now free to be rowdy could easily become unruly and turn a great match into a mockery.
I've heard some college tennis observers say, "If it's not broken then why fix it?” Unfortunately, it may already be broken, as tennis programs are disappearing from college campuses at an alarming rate.
I'm all for progress in the game, and maybe something needs to be done to further promote college tennis, but this is not it. I have said before in my blogs and I will repeat it here, college tennis is about the players, not the fans. It will never be as popular as basketball or football to fans … not even remotely close. It's a terrific game to play with an incredible balance of technical, physical, mental and emotional challenge.
I'm worried that when conferences subvert the balance of the experience to attract fans with the promise of the freedom to rant, any small short-term gains will be far outweighed by the ultimate and inevitable loss of player enthusiasm. Maybe some players (especially foreign players who may be older and more experienced than Americans) may embrace the challenge of battling fans during Big 12 matches, but I think most recruits will choose to play elsewhere.
I submit that if a rule is not good for the player, it is ultimately not good for the sport.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 state high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.