Hecklers Welcome At Big 12 Tennis Matches

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Crowds at tennis matches are typically quiet. The Big 12 is trying to change that. (Mal Fairclough/Getty Images)
Crowds at tennis matches are typically quiet. The Big 12 is trying to change that. (Mal Fairclough/Getty Images)

This is the sound of a tennis match.

Thwack ... thwack ... thawk ... grunt ... thwack ... polite applause.

Or so it was, back in the day. But a recent Big 12 tennis match between Oklahoma and Baylor sounded more like a football game ... even during the action. That's because the conference has changed its rules to allow heckling.

The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Perrotta attended that match and he joined Bill Littlefield to explain.

BL: Tom, what’s with the heckling?

"It's a tricky call: the battle between tradition and making tennis more like other American sports."

Tom Perrotta, WSJ

BL: What are some of the best heckles that you heard there in Waco?

TP: Yelling "mixer" when people are trying to hit second serves to see if they can get them to miss. Grunting — grunting in unison on every shot. One kid I thought was quite funny was reading aloud from an instructional tennis book, "How to Play Tennis," so all sorts of things about which grips you should use and your backswing and stuff like that. Some of it was quite funny.

But it was also very persistent, and the players, you could see them being irritated by it. I credit the Oklahoma team. They were on the road and they handled it quite well. It was a tough environment, and they won the match, 4-3.

BL: There are limits to what people can say, though, right? I mean, if you shouted something really inappropriate you'd probably be tossed out. 

TP: Yeah, it's not supposed to be personal. They don't want people swearing, sort of the rules you would expect at a basketball, football or baseball game — things that you could be thrown out for for that. But the big difference is that in the past you would be reprimanded and your team could even lose a point if you're shouting during a point while the point is going on, trying to distract an opposing player. And now the rule is, that's OK. If the point's going on, and you're not being vulgar or crude, you can say whatever you want.

BL: Did you get a sense of how players and coaches feel about allowing, even encouraging, heckling while the matches are going on?

TP: Very mixed feelings. John Roddick, an older brother of Andy Roddick, is Oklahoma's coach and he has mixed feelings about it. He loves the enthusiasm, wants to see crowds out there, but when some people start yelling, "Out!" in the middle of a point, he thought well maybe we need to have some rules that limit a couple different things.

It's tough. I mean, I think that we'd get used to it, but tennis is, it's so much different from other sports, and fans were saying this too: you're right on top of the fans. Some of these people are just 10, 15 feet away or they're hanging over a balcony about 10 feet from the players, and they can really hear them.

BL: The quest for relevance also has the Big 12 and other conferences resorting to other measures: shortening matches, providing bouncy castles and other activities for kids, giving away pizza, giving away t-shirts. Is all of this stuff working?

TP: That stuff seems pretty fun to me. The attendance for this match was 1,479, thereabouts. I think attendance is up a little bit for most schools in the Big 12 this year, and a lot of people told me they came out just for the pizza and the t-shirts, and this is one attempt to try and get more of those.

BL: You mentioned in the article that Oklahoma won despite the heckling by the Baylor Bears. So what happens now at Baylor? Does the coach go out into the student body and say, "Come on you guys, get it right. You gonna help us, help us."

[sidebar title="At The Pro Level ..." width="630" align="right"]Tennis is famous for playing its Grand Slams on different surfaces. But the tournaments are also known for having very different sounds.[/sidebar]TP: No, I think he was pretty pleased with the help that they got. The NCAA tournament is going to be held in Baylor in May — the team tournament. But that is going to be held under the traditional rules. These rules are just for the Big 12 Conference matches, so a lot of Baylor people will be out watching those matches, I'm sure, but they won't be able to heckle and scream during points.

BL: That'd be a hard transition to make, though, wouldn't you think? From being able to shout and heckle to the expectation that you would be quiet.

TP: Yeah, very hard transition. But that's the nature of experimentation. I mean, they're trying it this year, and we'll see how it goes. I won't be surprised if they tweak it a little bit, but I think that they'll have a little bit more of an open policy than other people do. The Intercollegiate Tennis Association is watching it closely and thinking, "Is this something we oughta push for other conferences too?"

It's a tricky call: the battle between tradition and making tennis more like other American sports. It's sort of an endless battle in tennis, and I can see both sides of it.

This segment aired on April 18, 2015.



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