The menace of tennis fans

Image of Harry Eyres

The atmosphere on Monday afternoon in Court No 1 at Wimbledon (a better arena, with spectators closer to the players, than Centre Court, according to former champion Pat Cash, and he has a point) was tense.

The young British hope Laura Robson, who had played with such character in the previous round to beat a gritty opponent, couldn’t quite raise her game to overcome the experienced Estonian Kaia Kanepi. Robson had chances but got nervous and fluffed them. This wasn’t the noisiest or the most chauvinistic crowd you could find but that did not stop certain moronic people from shouting out “Laura” in a meaningless way just as her opponent was serving, or from applauding the occasional double-fault from the Estonian.

On me this had the perverse effect (considering that I’m quite a Robson fan, and hope for great things from the 19-year-old), of making me support Kanepi. But it also raised wider issues, to do with manners, protocol, politeness. I suddenly remembered a truly heartening article I read recently in an airline magazine (something I probably shouldn’t admit to, for myriad reasons). It appeared under the magnificent byline of Desirée Treichl-Stürgkh and it was about the lack of protocol on flights.

I found myself almost applauding Treichl-Stürgkh out loud. Her remarks about the way people wilfully ignore instructions to switch off their mobile phones or put them on flight mode, place their seats in the upright position for take-off and landing, stay seated until the fasten seat belts sign is switched off, and so on, were music to my ears. She might have gone further and questioned why people pay no attention to boarding instructions, need to take largish suitcases as hand luggage, and cannot just sit down fairly quickly when they reach their seat.

I was recently on a flight when an entire family decamped to one of two rows of seats which had been sealed off, in order, we were told, to preserve the balance of the aircraft. If this really was a safety issue, I asked politely, why were they allowed to do this? If not, why were the seats sealed off? The cabin attendant merely shrugged.

But Treichl-Stürgkh had an upbeat message. These regrettable lapses in in-flight behaviour are actually counter-cyclical. We are returning, she claims, to “true values ... the rules of polite behaviour are currently back in vogue.” Well, I do hope she is right, but back on Court No 1 you could have been forgiven for thinking she had seen one swallow and assumed it was summer (not an assumption you can safely make any longer in the UK).

I am not sure when it became acceptable to call out the first names of players in order to put off the opponent, or to applaud entirely self-inflicted mistakes such as double-faults. I may be a Horatian laudator temporis acti, or praiser of past times (as Horace himself was not), but I cannot remember such behaviour when I first went to watch tennis at Wimbledon as a young boy in the late 1960s and 1970s, the days of the efficient but not terribly inspiring Roy Emerson and the so-called “Flying Dutchman” Tom Okker, who whizzed about the court as fast as Novak Djokovic and who, unlike the relentless Serb, loved to volley. It’s a moot point which of the two solecisms – calling out the names or applauding double-faults – I like least. The first is more presumptuous – as if the players and the callers-out were personal friends – while the second is more plainly stupid and ill-mannered. Both, I think, are more than regrettable; they are unsporting and should be discouraged by the authorities. Why not have an announcement at the start of every match on something like these lines: “Here at the All England Club (or Roland Garros, or Flushing Meadows) we expect high sporting standards of the players. Can we also ask spectators to observe high standards of sportsmanship, to keep quiet when appropriate and to applaud excellent play, rather than cheering embarrassing mistakes?”

No, I can’t really see that happening. Both the failure to observe protocol on aeroplanes and the unsporting behaviour of tennis fans are symptoms of an attitude of intolerance towards etiquette. The idea that there might be rules of polite behaviour which were worth sticking to, for the common good and enjoyment, has been out of fashion for a long time. Fortunately, there are still parts of the All England Club unaffected by this malaise. The outside courts, where I used to go with my father after 5pm and watch from right by the courtside, are still havens of peaceful enjoyment of excellent tennis, especially doubles. Here you find real enthusiasm for the game, rather than stargazing.

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