Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Audience Factor

I did not see Melanie Oudin play Elena Dementieva. At the time I was shocked that she managed to beat the woman most likely to win the US Open according to the majority of prognosticators. That Elena got bumped was not the surprise. What made everyone’s jaw drop was that she had lost to a 17-year-old newbie with no claim to game.

So when I got to the Open last Saturday, my only agenda was that I wanted to see Oudin up close. Of course I also wanted to support Federer, but like most members of the audience, I took his win against Lleyton so entirely for granted that it took Rogi losing the first set for me to wake up and start hooting and hollering his support.

But from the moment Oudin came on court, my attention was all hers. She was playing against Maria Sharapova, a player who normally attracts the support of American audiences everywhere. In fact, it has become almost convenient to forget that Sharapova, with her unshakable American accent, is not actually American.

My prediction was that Sharapova was in for the shock of her life. I predicted that not only would the crowd support Oudin but that it would root against Maria. And we did.

If I were Michael Joyce, I would have prepared Sharapova for the partiality of the US Open crowd. I would have told her that it is not personal but that the US is longing for a glimpse of the future. I would have reminded her that despite her multimillion dollar endorsement deals, she is still a foreigner, a Russian who plays for Russia in Fed Cup. I would have told her that against an American blonde, she had no chance.

Given the sour looks on Sharapova’s face during this match, I have to wonder if the problem was that she was not adequately prepared or that she had elected not to believe what she may have told. I wondered if she may have assumed that just because a lot of Americans support her when she plays against Venus or Serena, they would support her against an American blonde. I wondered if she was somehow na├»ve to the subtleties of American racism.

Of course this is pure speculation on my part. All I can say for certain is that there were moments when Maria’s face seemed downright sour. And the more the crowd seemed to affect her performance, the more we screamed in support of Oudin. For a brief moment I wondered out loud if I should feel bad for Maria. And then I got over it.

Two days later, I was also a part of the contingent prepared to do battle against Nadia Petrova for a chance to help out Oudin. It wasn’t personal. I actually have nothing against Petrova. Actually, I happen to like Petrova very much. But I wanted Oudin to win. I knew that the right audience could make or break a player’s performance. And so it was that after the silence of the first set, I found myself screaming heartily as Oudin started making her move in the second. Honestly, I did not think she would win, but to the extent that the audience could be a factor in match outcomes, I wanted to give her every advantage. When she won, my screams of joy could be heard from Brooklyn.

But afterward, I found myself wondering at the hostility of that Indian Wells crowd towards Serena as she faced Clijsters in 2001 after benefiting from a walkover by Venus. By hooting and hollering at Sharapova’s and Petrova’s errors, was I actually acting any better than the folks at Indian Wells who tried to boo Serena into losing?

Notice I said booed and not BOOED. I have always maintained that the problem with the Indian Wells incident was the BOOING against Serena for an error made by her sister. But am I being specious? Was there really a difference between my rooting against Sharapova or Petrova and the Indian Wells crowd attack on Serena? I honestly think, yes. For a start, for most of us, it wasn’t personal. That same audience would show both Sharapova and Petrova a lot of love if they faced any other opponent tomorrow. And race was never a factor in the response.

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