A go-to mantra of many coaches who have ever tried to get an athlete ready to compete on a big stage is the reminder that this tennis court, running track or soccer field is no different than the one she practices on.
That is usually impossible to truly believe — except this year at the quiet, crowd-free United States Open. Here, in empty stadiums, the no-names have had their way with many of the big names.
Serena Williams said that playing without ticket-buying spectators, with just a couple coaches and maybe two dozen people watching even the biggest matches, felt like her first junior tournaments when she was a young girl. Without a crowd to play to and draw energy from, Novak Djokovic, one of the sport’s great showmen, appeared lost and cranky — so cranky, in fact, that he ended up swatting a ball in frustration, accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat and earning an automatic disqualification from the tournament.
“I feed off the crowd’s energy, so if I’m just having a bad day, it’s a little bit lonely,” said Naomi Osaka, the 2018 champion and the No. 4 seed this year.
Nearly every player at the U.S. Open has said they kind of hate playing without a crowd. The effect of all that silence is nearly impossible to discern, because it cannot be isolated from other factors. But coming onto the tournament, many experts predicted that without the screaming hordes, the oohs and aahs during points and the crescendos at dramatic moments, the playing field would level, especially at Arthur Ashe Stadium, which at nearly 24,000 seats is the largest venue in tennis.
So far, it looks like they are right.
The American Jennifer Brady, the No. 28 seed, continued her unlikely run on Tuesday, reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal after dismantling Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, the No. 23 seed, 6-3, 6-2 in 69 minutes. Brady, 25, said it had been crucial for her to not think about the fact that she was playing for a spot in the semifinals at a Grand Slam, and to stay in control of her emotions.
“It’s a little bit easier when there is no fans,” she said.
Brady, who has struggled the last two years in big tournaments, has plenty of practice playing in small, unheralded competitions on the fringes of professional tennis. She also has limited exposure to loud and rowdy U.S. Open crowds. During this run, she has not lost a set, including in a round of 16 victory over Angelique Kerber of Germany, the former world No. 1 and three-time Grand Slam tournament champion.
Brady has plenty of unlikely company as the tournament enters its final rounds. Six of the eight women and five of the eight men who made the quarterfinals were seeded lower than No. 8.
The No. 1 seed, Karolina Pliskova, lost in the second round to Caroline Garcia of France, No. 50 in the world rankings. Shelby Rogers of the United States, No. 93, beat the No. 6 seed, Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, a former Grand Slam finalist, outlasting her in a tight third-set tiebreaker that in any other year would have had thousands of fans in Louis Armstrong Stadium in a tizzy.
On Monday night, the No. 16 seed, Elise Mertens of Belgium, eliminated Sofia Kenin, the Australian Open champion and the No. 2 seed.
“It’s different,” Wim Fissette, Osaka’s coach, said of this tournament’s unique atmospherics. “If you never played on Ashe with a full crowd and then have that moment that you go on court and you play someone like Naomi or you play someone like Serena, it’s huge.”
None of this surprises experts in social psychology. They have spent more than a century trying to understand the effects of an audience on human performance and testing a theory of social facilitation advanced by Robert B. Zajonc, an American psychologist who was one of the giants of the field.
The hypothesis boils down to this: When a task is easy — say, running fast in a straight line, or beating a far inferior tennis player — the presence of an audience improves performance. But when a task is complex, like upsetting one of the best players in the world on a grand stage, a crowd makes it more difficult.
To be clear, Zajonc was not known as a tennis expert. He developed the theory, in part, by studying cockroaches. Zajonc and his fellow researchers found that a cockroach completed a straight run faster when other cockroaches were there. However, the same cockroaches completed a complex maze much more efficiently when they were alone than when there was a crowd of other cockroaches taking in the action.
Further studies by other scientists — of gymnasts and people doing nonathletic activities — have found similar phenomena.
“What we are really talking about here is cortical arousal in the brain stem and the spinal column,” said Michael Gervais, a psychologist who has worked with Olympic gold medalists and the Seattle Seahawks of the N.F.L.
As Gervais explained, screaming crowds serve as a stimulant, increasing heart rate and breathing, and all the other biochemical reactions associated with tension. Also, exposure to stimulants lessens their effect, so a player who has played dozens of matches in big stadiums in front of big crowds probably will not be aroused in the same way as a player who has not experienced it very often, making it a lot easier to achieve the relaxed intensity needed for optimal performance. Without a crowd, that advantage disappears.
Making matters more precarious for top players is that over time many of them grow to rely on external stimulants like the roar of the crowd to reach a competitive peak. The promise of receiving all that adulation if they are successful becomes an addicting carrot.
After surviving Maria Sakkari, the No. 15 seed, in a tight, three-set match on Monday, Williams lamented the challenge of competing in silence after two decades hearing the roars.
“I’m training and I’m playing for the crowd,” she said.
Without the crowd, Gervais said, Williams and the other top players have to approach this unique environment as “an opportunity to return to the purity of the game” because there is no external motivation — outside of winning the $3 million prize for the champion, of course.
In contrast, many lesser players come to the court just not wanting to be embarrassed. Without a crowd, that prospect and the tension it brings largely vanishes.
That does not mean there is no tension. Brady said she was so nervous before Tuesday’s match she thought she was going to “poop my pants.”
But then she settled into what became something rather familiar. Rogers, the unseeded underdog who was scheduled to play Osaka on Tuesday night, recognized the same circumstances when she beat Kvitova on Monday and Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, the No. 11 seed, last week.
“For her it is protocol,” said Rogers’s coach, Ryan Nau. “We just came in thinking there weren’t going to be any people here.”