NEW YORK – During Wednesday’s night session at the U.S. Open, spectators inside Arthur Ashe Stadium chattered about the evening’s events. Quite loudly, in fact. And they wouldn’t stop.
Throughout the night’s two matches—an upset victory for Anastasija Sevastova over third-seeded Garbine Muguruza and a straight-sets win for Rafael Nadal over Andreas Seppi—fans created an ambient noise with casual conversation that would not go away no matter how hard chair umpire Cedric Mourier tried to keep them quiet during points.
During the 39-minute first set between Nadal and Seppi, the umpire hushed the crowed at least 15 times to no avail. As the match went on, he continued to repeat “please” and “thank you” to a near-comical point. It was like a grade-school teacher trying to calm an auditorium filled with sugar-infused hysteria, a dejected plea for peace.
Even though court’s new retractable roof structure was not completely shut, it partially enclosed the facility and caused the crowd noise to reverberate inside. At 3-3 in the second set of Nadal-Seppi, organizers closed the roof atop Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time.
The collection of subdued comments combined to create a ballpark-like atmosphere, which players simply were not expecting at a tennis event, even in New York.
“In tennis, normally you are used to playing with silence,” Nadal said after the match. “With the new court, even if the roof is open, there is noise out there. It’s probably not the fault of the people, because I have been playing here for so many years and don’t remember that noise when you are playing. It was a little bit strange. For moments, it was a little bit too much during the points.”
“It was really loud. It was tough to play,” Sevastova said. “I mean, sometimes you don’t hear the ball hit, so it’s coming to you and you think it’s still somewhere there.”
The ruckus distracted from the debut of the roof’s closing, which halted Nadal’s match for roughly seven minutes and allowed play to continue on through a drizzle. While it solved the problem it was designed to remedy, it may have created another.
The roof structure—a $150 million project that is now the largest retractable opening in tennis—was built as a part of the U.S Tennis Association’s massive $550 million makeover for Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The grand revamp of the U.S. Open’s main court in Flushing will help the tournament avoid inclement weather delays, but it also helps level Arthur Ashe Stadium with other Grand Slam venues—Wimbledon has a retractable top to Centre Court and the Australian Open added one to each of its three main courts at Melbourne Park.
While USTA executive director Gordon Smith acknowledged that the organization connected with these two Grand Slam events regarding the roof, the issue of crowd noise may be a larger problem in New York than in other areas of the globe.
“It’s obvious that there was going to be more noise in a closed environment than an open environment,” Smith said. “This is a learning year for us, it’s a learning year for the players and the fans. And we’ll look at doing things in the future to deal with that.”
He added that the USTA was will collect data on the roof and the environment inside Ashe.
Since most tennis fans do not attend every session at the U.S. Open, it’s likely that there will be a new crowd in Queens each day, unaware of the noise their quiet chatter makes at court level.
While both Nadal and Sevastova admitted they became used to the sounds as the match went on, the Spaniard offered a suggestion to help keep the stirring to a minimum.
“The only thing they have to control a little bit better is when the gates are open and the gates are close,” Nadal said. “The people who are inside, there should be a little bit of rules with that they cannot leave their seat during the game. They have to leave the seat when it’s the changeover, no?”
In the first set, play was halted for a minute after a changeover while a handful of indecisive fans at court level shuffled their feet about leaving, causing a chain reaction of comments among agitated onlookers who wanted play to continue.
Even before the roof was closed, it seems that the new structure created an environment akin to a typical sporting event in New York—just not one that tennis players are used to, even at the U.S. Open.
“For moments it was little bit too much during the points,” Nadal said after the match. “I always love the energy and the noise of the New York crowd. [It] is just fantastic. I feel very close to them because I play with a lot of passion, and they give me that electricity, that passion.
“But is true that was a little bit more noisy than usual.”