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Fans' return to US Open is having an impact on players, good and bad

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NEW YORK — Last Saturday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, No. 43 Shelby Rogers sailed a moon shot over No. 1 Ash Barty, who had just come up to net in the middle of the third set. The ball stayed in bounds by about an inch, and when it hit the court, the crowd went berserk. They weren’t just cheering for an American. They were cheering for an underdog, and Rogers — who is 28-years-old, coming off of knee surgery, and had never defeated Barty — was about as underdog as it gets.

Up until this point, Rogers had kept her celebrations relatively muted. She’d climbed back from a 2-5 deficit in the third set, pumping her fist close to her chest, but not in an inviting-the-crowd-to-participate sort of way. That changed a few points later, when Rogers was on the verge of breaking Barty, and tying the set at 5-5.

Barty hit a cross-court forehand that traveled far past the baseline, and this time, Rogers allowed herself more of a celebration. She let out a scream, pumped her fists — in an inviting manner — and jumped up and down, as if the reverberations shaking the stadium shook her, too.

“Thank you,” the chair umpire said, like a stern librarian trying to hush a room, to little effect. “Thank you.”

After falling to Barty 1-6 in the second set, in the third set, it was Rogers who became the aggressor. Barty had two chances to close out the match, but Rogers kept delivering the right shots when it mattered most. Her shift in energy was noticeable, and in her mind, a product of the crowd she’d played for.

Sep 4, 2021; Flushing, NY, USA; 

Shelby Rogers reacts, along with the spectators, after being No. 1-seeded Ash Barty at the U.S. Open.
Sep 4, 2021; Flushing, NY, USA; Shelby Rogers reacts, along with the spectators, after being No. 1-seeded Ash Barty at the U.S. Open.

“I would say they’re probably the reason I won tonight, to be honest,” she said after her 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 win over Barty. “I mean, my tactics, sure, were great, but they gave me something that I wouldn't have probably been able to bring out of myself. So I'm super thankful for that.”

They gave Rogers energy, quite a contrast from a year ago when the U.S. Open was played in front of no spectators because of the pandemic. But the fans are back this year, and with them a completely different atmosphere.

In Rogers' case, the crowd basically willed her to continue. It’s something that athletes say all the time, and something that sounds quite cliché — until you start to dig into the research. In 1966, a social psychologist named Robert Zajonc found that high-pressure situations and environments tend to favor top players, because in those environments, players are required to rely on their instincts (and top players tend to have the best instincts). A study done 50 years later, in 2016, found that some athletes use crowd behavior as performance cues.

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“Your mind creates 48 thoughts a minute,” said Roger Kirtz, a mental skills specialist who has worked with the USTA. “That’s just a scientific fact. And the way that the brain works is we attach A plus B equals C. ‘I really was excited for this tournament, I know I practice hard, I really believe I can win.’ That's one little narrative. Our brain has a lot of different narratives. Some of them are positive, some negative. ‘I can't beat them, they're higher ranked than me. I can't do this.’ And Shelby Rogers was a perfect example of that. She was ready to quit.

“So you have all these narratives going on in your mind, and when you get a crowd behind you, it really clicks in those positive narratives that you have of self belief. So you start to build and pay attention to the positives. You think, ‘I can actually do this.’ Those narratives are competing against each other at all times — the positive versus the negative.”

If Rogers is an example of the positive narratives generated by crowd energy, Kirtz sees world No. 1 Novak Djokovic as an example of someone who generates the opposite effect. Coming off of a performance at the 2021 Summer Olympics that was controversial to say the least — in which he used his racket as a de facto sledgehammer — Djokovic has not received the warmest reception in New York, despite being on a quest for a calendar Grand Slam.

In Djokovic’s first-round match against Holger Rune, an 18-year-old qualifier out of Denmark, the crowd began to chant his name. Rune took the second set, before he succumbed to cramping. After the match, Djokovic said he assumed the chants were boos — which tells you all you need to know about his relationship with his audience.

“It was not ideal atmosphere for me to tell you that,” he said, “but I've been in these particular atmospheres before, so I knew how to handle it.”

Kirtz isn’t so sure.

“Djokovic’s body language when he's out there and the fans are cheering the other person ... he's very edgy,” he said. “He's very grumpy. The look on his face, the way he looks at his box … his body language says it all. What comes out of his mouth is not matching what his body and facial expressions and behavior shows.

“That crowd was really pulling for that kid (Rune), and as much as they were pulling for him, they were kind of like, we don't want you to surpass (Roger) Federer and surpass (Rafael) Nadal, because those are great spokespeople for the game. We care about sportsmanship and those guys care about sportsmanship. And being disqualified from tournaments, throwing your racket at the Olympics, that's not what we want our record holder and champion to do. The crowd does have a say as to who they want to represent the game.”

Since that first match, the crowd has warmed to Djokovic a little bit. In the third set of his third-round win against Kei Nishikori, he playfully pointed his index finger towards his ear after hitting one of his dangerous backhand winners, as if to ask for more love from an audience that hasn’t given him much. They obliged. But they were also on their feet when Nishikori took the first set 7-6, a response which has become a trend in Djokovic’s matches.

“He doesn't seem to get it,” Kirtz said. “He throws his rackets everywhere. He was disqualified last year for hitting a ball person. Federer and Nadal wouldn't do that. And New Yorkers especially are just not down with that. They're gonna let you know if they want to get behind you.”

Djokovic will face 20-year-old American wild card entry Jenson Brooksby in the fourth-round on Monday night. On paper, it’s not much of a match-up; Brooksby is ranked No. 99 in the world, and just turned pro this year. But the crowd response could pose a legitimate challenge to Djokovic, if he is as affected by it as his body language would suggest.

And for Brooksby, the crowd's support could mean the difference between a fourth-round loss and a career-defining win.

“It boosts confidence, it clicks in those positive narratives in your mind and it actually engages adrenaline in the body,” Kirtz said. “There's a physical reaction of an adrenaline boost when people start supporting you. It’s a feeling of, "Hey, I can do this."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open: Fans having impact on Novak Djokovic, Shelby Rogers, others