NEW YORK – The ruckus Jennifer Brady is causing by breaking through to her first-ever major semifinal is reverberating throughout the tennis world, and her quarterfinal win at the US Open on Tuesday allowed the world No. 25 to throw her hands in the air and soak in the enormity of her accomplishment immediately after match point. As Brady looked up in glee to her team in her box after the win, there was one thing noticeably absent as part of Brady’s noise-making march through New York City.
Not a roar. Nor a chant. Thunderous rounds of applause are on pause.
The quiet that Brady and other Americans have had to experience, enacted when the USTA decided not to admit spectators onto the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center as a precaution during the coronavirus pandemic, is in direct contrast to the norm during a late summer day in Queens, when America’s Grand Slam overflows with, among many things, raucous patriotism for fellow Yanks on the tennis court. Their absence takes away one of the trademarks that make the US Open — and the long-lasting memories of being an American and having success in the tournament — distinctly unique from any other tennis event on the calendar.
“You know, if the crowd was there, I think it would have been awesome to have that experience, to even just experience the loud roar on Ashe with 20,000 people,” Brady said after her quarterfinal victory over Yulia Putintseva allowed her to become the first former collegian to reach the semis of the Open since 1987.
Along with seeing the emergence of a potential American superstar in the making in Brady, those 20,000-or-so fans packing Arthur Ashe Stadium would continue to go gaga over one American’s pursuit at cementing tennis immortality, with 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams once again marching closer to a record-tying 24th. Six of those titles have come in New York, and many of her self-motivating exhortations and outbursts on the court are normally followed by boisterous cheers and chants of support from the Big Apple faithful.
Whatever Serena is missing by not having her usual throng of backers is made up for by her maniacal drive for perfection, regardless of any attendance figures.
“Obviously I miss the crowd, because usually I’m training and I’m playing for the crowd,” Williams said after her Round of 16 win against Maria Sakkari on Labor Day. “But now we have a virtual crowd. You know, there is a lot of people that’s supporting. Whether it’s me or my opponent, they are still here to watch a really good match.”
On many occasions, really good matches become iconic ones when adding the element of the crowd, and Shelby Rogers knows that all too well. One of the 11 American women to advance to the third round of the US Open in 2020 (first time since 1994 Wimbledon that that many American women have advanced that far in a single major), Rogers produced a memorable win here in 2017 against then-top-25 player Daria Gavrilova in what became the longest women’s singles match in US Open history at three hours and 33 minutes. The raucous nature of that match on Court 10 three years prior would have gone past level 10 on Sunday on Louis Armstrong Stadium, as the South Carolinian saved four match points before dispatching former Grand Slam champion Petra Kvitova 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 to advance to the quarterfinals.
Rogers, who has come back from major knee surgery in 2018 and is no stranger to playing in front of much smaller crowds in making her way up the the rankings to begin her career and in the past two years, sees the advantages of both having the fans boost her to the finish line as well as the near-deafening silence of an empty, cavernous arena.
“Most of us love the crowd. We love putting on a show. We love getting feedback. Especially me, I love the cheers,” Rogers said after he win against Kvitova. “You hear your name, you get a little extra energy from that.
At the same time, at this point I’m really used to there not being a crowd. A lot of the USTA was there. I saw some of my friends there. My coach was there…I mean, of course I really miss the fans. I would love a packed stadium. At the same time I’m just as thrilled to get through that match. It was a good mental victory for me.”
Mind over matter could not come more sharply into focus for many American players having to play in their home slam without the vocal support. According to J.J. Wolf, the 21-year-old Cincinnati native who won his first two Grand Slam matches of his career earlier this week, the mind might come in handy trying to imagine the matter of actual fans in the stands whooping it up during his time in New York.
“I guess I should probably start doing that,” Wolf said to A Lot of Sports Talk after his second-round victory over Roberto Carballes Baena. “I don’t think I’ve done that in the past. I’ve played a lot of challengers where there aren’t too many fans. I’m not unused to it. Yeah, I don’t know. I’ll probably try to do that.”
On Thursday, Brady’s toughest task in this tournament awaits her in the semis in the form of 2018 US Open Naomi Osaka, a match sure to have been filled with a buzz in the air of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Even with the absence of an audience, the emotions that come from performing well in New York for an American tennis player never truly abate, and as far as Brady is concerned, her number one fan has already gone through the rollercoaster ride of feelings that any of the 20,000 fans might have experienced while watching Brady make the most noise she has ever made in a major.
“Actually, today was the first time I Facetimed my mom and she started bawling,” Brady said. “That was nice. She’s very emotional. She’s very proud of me. She was happy. I’m sure she is watching this somehow.”