- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2001

They cheered. They chanted. They waved flags.

By every measure, the fans at the Wimbledon men's final were a rowdy, rip-roaring bunch, raucous as a World Cup rooting section, passionate as the Cheeseheads at Lambeau Field.

In other words, anything but the typical tennis crowd.

"It was the most fun of my life on a tennis court," said Croatia's Goran Ivanisevic, who scored a thrilling five-set victory over Australia's Patrick Rafter. "Everybody in the crowd was going nuts. This is the best atmosphere Wimbledon ever had."

No argument there. Rollicking and electric, the audience's mood during the men's final was far removed from the strawberries-and-cream, Evian-and-polite-applause vibe so common to the sport.

And that, in turn, raises the question: Why the difference? Or, to put it another way, why are tennis fans usually so lame?

To answer, start with socioeconomics. As is increasingly the case in American professional sports, much of the average tennis crowd at least the mood-setting portion that sits near the court consists of corporate ticket holders.

Present on the company dime, often looking to conduct company business, corporate fans are seldom zealous. Granted, some are passionate about the sport but most care more about the cocktail menu at the hospitality tent.

By contrast, consider the proletarian nature of the crowd at the Wimbledon men's final. Thanks to rain delays, the match took place on the Monday following the usual end of the tournament; consequently, the All-England Club made 10,000 tickets available to the general public on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The result? The fans who managed to get in really, really wanted to be there. (Some even waited in line more than 24 hours to buy a ticket.)

Then there's the matter of rooting interest. While pro teams and, alas, NASCAR drivers attract and play before devoted fan bases, tennis stars are seldom beloved outside of their home countries, where they may play only a handful of tournaments every season.

At the Wimbledon final, though, the crowd was rife with Australians and Croatians, charging the match with a nationalistic fervor seldom seen in tennis Davis Cup excluded. Fans took sides and wanted their guy to win.

Could anyone in Washington genuinely say the same thing about last summer's Legg Mason Classic, won by genial Spaniard Alex Corretja?

"So many Australian fans, Croatians, I mean it was like a football match," Ivanisevic said. "It was great. I never enjoy more to play tennis than today."

From his loopy quotes to his goofy, shirt-doffing antics, Ivanisevic's enjoyment was obvious. Along with affable Aussie Rafter, Ivanisevic gave the crowd a reason to let loose.

Unlike the hangdog Pete Sampras, the suddenly sour Andre Agassi or a multitude of other players who seem to consider fans little more than a necessary annoyance, he invited the crowd to join in the fun. And they responded in grand fashion.

(Largely because they are so often neglected, tennis crowds are suckers for showmanship: Consider American teen-ager Andy Roddick, who hammed his way to fan favorite status at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.)

Regrettably, though, there's little that can be done to juice up the average tennis crowd, outside of duplicating the unique convergence of circumstances at Wimbledon.

So long as prize money matters, corporate tickets aren't going anywhere. Fans are unlikely to latch onto foreign players. And the players themselves can't be counted on to provide a compelling dash of personality, at least not consistently.

"Wimbledon has never experienced anything like this excitement," Rafter said. "And probably won't again."

And that's a shame.

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