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In tennis, decorum is imposed only on the fans

This week I am making my annual pilgrimage to the National Tennis Center, in Queens, N.Y., for the U.S. Open, and once again I am reminded of Oct. 10, 1980. That night, George Brett of the Kansas City Royals hit a three-run homer off Goose Gossage in the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium to beat the Yanks 4-2 and complete the Royals' three-game sweep of the American League Championship Series.

Why does a tennis match remind me of a nine-year-old baseball game? Because every time I notice a hush fall over the crowd at the Tennis Center, as if we're about to hear the first notes of La Traviata, I say to myself, Why are we being quiet for tennis players, who only have to hit a soft, fuzzy ball over the net, when Brett faced down a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, with 56,588 people screaming in his ear, and sent it into the upper deck in rightfield?

Once I consider that incongruity, I marvel at the flock of tennis sheep waiting at each ramp until the two players change over at the odd-numbered games of the set. Heaven forbid if these fans were allowed to return to their seats whenever they wanted; they might disturb the concentration of Goran and Yahiya.

My sense of outrage increases with each passing minute as I sit and try to gauge the urgency of nature's call against the pace of the match. I wouldn't want to be caught waiting with the rest of the crowd at a ramp entrance while Slobodan and Jaime go out...deuce at a critical juncture. Nightmare of nightmares—and I know this is going to happen—I will be standing with the other little lambs in the darkness at the bottom of the stairway when, suddenly, we will hear this tremendous purr of appreciation coming from the light, followed by sustained applause. What did we miss? "You missed the best point of the match," our companions will tell us as we finally return to our seats. "Where were you, anyway?"

I know, I know. Tennis is a sport with a long tradition of courtesy. The custom of near-silence during points started out as simple politeness to the players. That was back when players wore white only and acted like ladies and gentlemen. Well, they don't wear white anymore—in fact, they look more like billboards—and they certainly don't act like ladies and gentlemen on the court. Some players, following the lead of such boors as Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe, think nothing of laying verbal waste to hapless officials.

Tennis players gave up their rights to courtesy once they tolerated such unsportsmanlike behavior among themselves. Some of these brats of summer are the first to complain about the "rudeness" of fans. The U.S. Open, in particular, gets low marks from the pros for fan courtesy. The next player to complain should be made to trade places with an 18-year-old kid trying to hit a free throw while thousands of crazies wave and scream in his face. (The only major-sport athlete more coddled by spectators is the golfer, but the golfer is generally a model of comportment, and he or she merits reciprocal courtesy. Besides, no other sport maintains such a strict code of honor as golf.)

Then there's this to think about: Where does the money that makes these players richer than Croesus come from? That's right, from all the people watching the ice melt in their sodas while Peanut and Rosalyn slug it out, baseline to baseline. These fans not only pack the stadiums but also buy the rackets and sportswear the players promote. Don't the fans deserve to come and go as they please?

And what's so scary about unlimited access, anyway? The next time you attend a baseball game, watch how many people actually get up and go during the course of an inning. Not that many. Surely, Steffi and Stefan's powers of concentration are sufficient to block out the distraction of spectators finding their seats.

Here's one final reason to allow tennis fans the rights of passage: safety. In July, a judge in Queens Criminal Court handed down a ruling against the U.S. Tennis Association, which he found guilty of violating fire department regulations by blocking the vomitories—that's what the access ramps in an arena are called—during the U.S. Open last September. The fire department claimed, and the judge agreed, that the clot of people waiting at each ramp for a changeover was a calamity waiting to happen, and the USTA was fined $500 on each of three counts of obstruction. This year the ramps themselves are being kept clear, but fans still have to wait to the side for a changeover if they go for refreshments.

But there's little reason to continue to play the waiting game. That's why I'll watch some prima donna player embarrass a spectator this week and wonder, What if Kirk Gibson had called time in the ninth inning of the first game of last year's Series to point out some fan in rightfield who hadn't yet taken his seat?