Booing Nadal: When tennis exposes the idiots

WILL BRODIE
Last updated 13:49 27/01/2014
Rafael Nadal gets treated during the mens final against Stanislas Wawrinka.
WAYNE TAYLOR/Fairfax Aus

TIME OUT: Rafael Nadal gets treated during the mens final against Stanislas Wawrinka.

Wawrinka wipes out Nadal

Stanislas Wawrinka
GETTY IMAGES
ULTIMATE TRIUMPH: Wawrinka had to overcome an awkward third set recovery from Rafael Nadal to claim his first grand slam title.

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OPINION: In rugby, players who change clubs, or get involved in biffo, are fair game. And anyone who is perceived to have too big an opinion of themselves. Perceived disloyalty and perceived injustice (usually liberally interpreted) generally determine the bulk of jeering.

Yes, people get carried away, but it is ritualistic and fans move on quickly. The action is consistently distracting, and the game is played by teams, not individuals, so there is a bigger story beyond the booing of the anointed villains.

Tennis is different. Sure, fans choose a player to follow. But the allegiance is, on the whole, temporary, nothing like the life-long connection of a footy fan to a club. Tennis fans don't know who will be playing when they buy tickets to the final. They are there for the event – they know no local is likely to be playing, so their passionate embrace of the occasion depends on the game provided on the night. They want their money's worth, and they have shelled out plenty of it in the hope of a memorable entertainment product. They feel entitled to an epic that sport's fates cannot guarantee.

At a tennis tournament, the demand for silence creates a theatrical atmosphere that exposes the immature, annoying and opportunistic voices often drowned out at continuously loud events like AFL games.

There are long gaps between bursts of action. The focus, on just two figures, is fiercer. A tennis match lurches from quiet to loud like a Pixies song, the atmosphere enhanced by the shock of a crowd going from 0 to 100 decibels.

There is a tension, a volatility, to this dynamic – some people cannot sit quietly for long. Some are fearful that a banal or embarrassing interjection will ruin the ambience. Many follow the mood of the room, dominated by the loudest voices, in the moment. It is dramatic theatre.

The opportunities for idiots to be heard are greater.

And the unique intimacy of tennis highlights the hysterical edge of the crowd groupmind.

In the tournament's first week, Australian prospect Bernard Tomic was booed for pulling out of a match. He was injured so badly that he will not play for weeks. At least there was a pre-existing prejudice - well-founded or not - against poor Bernie.

But during Sunday night's men's final, why did such a large part of the crowd boo world number one Rafael Nadal after he took an injury timeout? This group decided, without evidence, that one of the bravest, most competitive sportspeople ever to bounce a ball, was resorting to blatant gamesmanship when a set down in a major championship watched by millions.

Yes, Nadal pushes the rules to the brink in terms of time-wasting, but he is a fighter, an admirable role model, renowned for his tenacity.

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The Age's Greg Baum wrote that Nadal's injury time-out threw the final "out of kilter" and it became an "oddball, even macabre spectacle".

He wrote that the crowd "suspected gamesmanship, if not malingering, the least probable accusation against him".

Jake Niall reported that Nadal refused to blame his injury for his loss, and "understood the visceral reaction" of the crowd. "I tried to finish the match as good as I can, for the crowd, for the opponent, for me," he reported Nadal saying at game's end.

On Monday morning, SEN's Patrick Smith said a large portion of the crowd were "morons" for booing Nadal, and they had "made fools of themselves" by their actions. Station-mate Kevin Bartlett defended the crowd's right to express themselves as they saw fit, saying "You can understand why people get irritated" when players use injury timeouts.

Many talkback callers were unrepentant, claiming Nadal uses whatever tactics he can in big games when he falls behind.

But earlier on the same station, Australian sporting legend Andrew Gaze said that it was "gut-wrenching" to listen to the jeering of Nadal. He said it was "burning in his belly" that we were booing a champion, and that he had wanted to go on court and announce that "This is not what we are about as a country".

But the booing reveals that there is a significant portion of fans who are about thinking the worst of the best. They are about being judgmental. They are about being unfair, presumptive, contemptuous. They are about being small-minded.

Such an element is in the midst of every gathering of barrackers, but exposed by the particulars of tennis.

Gaze suggested that tennis players be granted a couple of timeouts per match, so there would be no need for "injury" timeouts to be faked, as they undoubtedly are on occasion.

Such a sensible suggestion might prevent a repeat of the Nadal jeers.

Perhaps better communication of what was happening to Nadal might have tempered some of the booing.

But maybe not. The loudmouths, the abusers, are in every large gathering. It's just that at the tennis, everyone can hear them.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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