Why I feel protective of tennis’ distinct atmosphere

There is stark, simple beauty in tennis’ drama. A shoulder bump on the change-over. The eerie quiet of the crowd, each fan experiencing the game narrative in simultaneously private and shared silence. Tennis offers a mesmerizing psychological atmosphere, one that forces the fan to try to get inside the player’s mind — a frustratingly, delightfully impossible task.

It’s a naturally suspenseful game with subtle, complex intensity and a fan experience to match. When the Big 12 recently ‘announced’ its decision to flout the tradition of the game and allow heckling/cheering at college matches, that fan experience faded a bit. In its attempt to expand college tennis’ dwindling fan base, the Big 12 abandoned the sport’s time-honored culture, trading its innate drama for something, well, flashier and more mainstream.

Since when is the cultural relevance of a sport contingent on the presence of heckling? Furthermore, the conference spent time announcing its raucous, new atmosphere rather than, say, highlighting its status as a powerhouse in the NCAA, one that includes Oklahoma, the nation’s top men’s team coached by Andy Roddick’s older brother, John. And Baylor, the No. 2 team in the nation.

There’s a certain charm in a story like American John Isner’s, despite his languid footwork. The Georgia star turned Top-10 pro. It’s a rare cause-and-effect tale in tennis, and the Big 12’s choice further isolates the NCAA and pro tour (but that’s tennis talk for a post all its own).

I like college tennis because it gives me access to the game’s signature suspense and intensity. The split-second glare exchanged during a change-over. That teammate mouthing a muted, secret “Yeah!” when the opponent hits a forehand wide. I can experience the narrative in a way I can’t when I watch Federer on TV, and I can experience it right here, where I live, watching my team.

I love to yell and heckle and cheer when I watch basketball (my angst is usually directed at Iowa’s Adam Woodbury), for instance, but I guess I feel protective of tennis. Of its tradition. Its distinct atmosphere. A quiet space that invites me to wonder, “What went through Nadal’s head when he constructed that brilliant point?” The ability to feel completely consumed by the lonely, illusive narrative of the game even as I’m surrounded by other fans.

Often, what’s not said in tennis resonates more than what is.

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