Adapting to the 'New Norm'
By Martin Rogers
These are quiet times in New York, but Novak Djokovic is trying to liven things up, even when there is no one there to hear it.
During his first two matches at the U.S. Open, Djokovic hasn’t toned down his typically ebullient and ear-splitting ways to reflect the silence from the empty stands around him.
If anything, the world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player has reveled in the irony and oddity of yelling into the vacant air, interacting with non-existent patrons, showboating just a little for no one in particular and, once victory is complete, applauding an imaginary audience.
Welcome to the weird world of sports in 2020, where most things are back … but virtually, nothing is back to normal.
Djokovic is seeking to add an 18th career Grand Slam title and is the overwhelming favorite to win in Queens for the fourth time, having won each of his 25 matches during this upturned calendar year. He cruised past Damir Dzumhur in the first round and Kyle Edmund in the second. He is due to play world No. 29 Jan-Lennard Struff in Friday’s third round and with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal absent due to coronavirus travel concerns, it is hard to see who can stop him.
Winning feels normal for Djokovic but not much else does right now. Never before has he been good-naturedly berated by a reporter during the post-match press conference for waking up the man’s sleeping wife with his outbursts. Nor has he played matches of such importance without a soul in the crowd.
"I had to bring some energy on the court," Djokovic told reporters, after jokingly apologizing to the journalist’s wife. "I mean, this is how I play. I try to bring in the intensity in these very strange conditions and circumstances where you’re playing in front of the empty stadium.
"When you make a great shot, why not scream and roar about it? That’s what I did."
Serena Williams, who is seeking her 24th Grand Slam title, has also sought to lift herself with motivational screams and fist-pumps throughout the first week.
But for many, it has been tough to find the right kind of energy at an event that usually features an inimitable buzz, with matches that go deep into the New York night and fans that file onto the subway afterwards in search of somewhere to carry on the party.
Not so much this time.
"A usually crammed boardwalk connecting the subway to the west gate was devoid of nearly all signs of life," wrote Matthew Futterman in the New York Times. "No one begging for or trying to sell an overpriced, last-minute ticket. No endless lines trying to get through the six metal detectors that were still operating but had little metal to detect."
This is a bizarre U.S. Open and it is serving the purpose of reminding us that not all sports are created equal when it comes to fans, specifically the reality of being without them.
"I don’t know why but I’m more bummed about missing the tennis than the football," Jerry Rawling, a New Yorker who loves both sports and is a New York Giants regular, told me. "The U.S. Open is like a special window that caps off the summer. It is not the same without it."
In other sports, the NBA and its fans have gotten accustomed to bubble alterations quickly. The ongoing playoffs have been fought out with a level of intensity that fans are accustomed to seeing. It doesn’t sound quite the same as before, but it took less than a week to stop noticing that.
Sports like mixed martial arts that thrive on a raucous and electrifying crowd experience, have enjoyed significant success even without it, while the end of the golf season is rattling on with a series of huge performances and late-event dramatics.
Perhaps the biggest deciding factor as to whether fan-free sports can truly offer a strong imitation of those with people present will be found when the NFL season starts next week.
Broadcasts will likely sound close to what we are used to, with the league having had more time than most competitions to get ready for this eventuality. The big question is how the players will respond and if they can bring the same level of uncompromising physicality and vibe to an arena where the human force field of spectator passion is missing.
Perhaps Djokovic is laying a blueprint for them, and any other athlete trying to navigate these changed days. Do your own thing, embrace your own sound, don’t hold back even if the atmosphere isn’t what you’re used to.
More than anything, make your own noise, even when there is no one to hear it.