On Wimbledon's Court Number Three on Monday, Caroline Wozniacki, the 18-year-old Dane, was about to serve against Germany's bright new star, Sabine Lisicki, when a plane passed overhead. The young lady stopped her toss up mid-air, caught the ball and waited until the Boeing 747 had passed over the court's environs before she resumed playing. Nobody batted an eyelid. Nor was anybody bothered a week earlier on the same court when Lleyton Hewitt delayed his serve against Robby Ginepri when somebody in the audience had the temerity to arrive back in his seat a fraction late after the change of ends. Tennis, you see, is played in silence; no player, it seems, should be expected to hit the ball with even the slightest of distractions in the background. That's just the way it is.
But why? Why should Roger Federer be granted complete silence when playing a crucial point on Centre Court when, say, Stephen Jones is expected to land a penalty with 50,000 Springbok fans roaring? Why should Lleyton Hewitt be allowed wait until everybody is settled in their seats before he decides to hit a ball, when Kilkenny's players at Croke Park this afternoon will have to go about their business with half of Dublin getting up and down to get to the toilet?
Tennis buffs generally come up with two answers. The game, they say, requires extreme precision, one where the meeting of ball and racket requires immense skill and, therefore, concentration. A similar kind of argument is put forward by golf folk when they're asked why their talented, high-earning professional players need complete silence to go about their business on the course. Both sports also put forward the simplified, if compelling, argument that silence is a necessity in modern tennis and golf because it has always been that way. As children, today's top players developed their skills in silence so asking them to perform with background noise would be akin to asking Rafael Nadal to start holding the racket in his right hand. Both sports have been shaped by their respective pasts.
In golf's case, however, that last argument is not entirely true. Consider the story of Tom Morris, born in 1821. Aside from earning a reputation as the foremost golf course designer of his or any other day, Morris, from St Andrews, won four Open Championships and still holds the record for being the oldest winner of the competition at 46. He also regularly took part in match-play encounters against his rivals from all over Scotland. The written records of those matches make fascinating reading. Willie Park, a player who won the very first Open back in 1860, was Morris's greatest rival and the two players met regularly for a purse put up by business men eager to gamble on their matches. On one occasion, the players played an epic 144 holes over four days across four courses to see who was the better of the two and it was a far-from-serene experience. The final 36 holes, played on Park's home course of Musselburgh, stand out in that respect.
Throughout the course of the final day, it was reported that Morris was jeered every time he went to hit a ball by the home crowd, and that every now and then somebody might kick his ball so that it suffered from an unfavourable lie. This though, if you'll excuse the pun, was par for the course. Morris, who is generally regarded as modern golf's founding father, was used to playing the game with people shouting and jeering as he addressed his ball. The next time Colin Montgomerie lashes out at the owner of a clicking camera he should be reminded that one of his native forefathers had to endure a lot worse.
Modern tennis, played as it was primarily on croquet lawns during its early years, never really suffered from such rowdy behaviour but what's believed to be the game's precursor was a far-from-silent affair. Jeu de paume was a game played by French monks from the 12th century, who batted a ball with their hands across a rope in monastery courtyards. As the game evolved, it became known as tenez, the French word for "take this", which is what one competitor would generally shout at the other when he palmed the ball across the rudimentary net.
Shouting, therefore, is a fundamental part of tennis's history. In fact, shouting is how the game actually got its name, which makes it more than a little ironic when you consider the modern day witch-hunt for women who have a tendency to scream or grunt when they crash a ball across the net. There is a school of thought that some of these ladies may be making a noise on hitting the ball merely to disguise the sound of a shot being hit with topspin but on the evidence of the awful women's competition we've witnessed at Wimbledon this past fortnight, topspin would be a trick too far for most female players bar the Williams sisters. In reality, they are, subconsciously or otherwise, merely releasing an audible sound to transmit the effort they're putting in. A modern day "take this", if you will.
Which brings us back to the crux of the issue, namely, is there any reason why tennis or golf cannot be played in an atmosphere generated at football, rugby or hurling games? Golf's fairly evident problem is that it is played over such large terrain, and thus spectators are thinly spread throughout the course. It only ever gets noisy around the green, and specifically, around the green in a match-play event, like the Ryder Cup, which is as close as golf gets to a real atmosphere.
As for tennis, we got a hint of how things might be on Monday night. With the Centre Court roof closed during Andy Murray's match against Stanislas Wawrinka, and the game delicately poised at two sets each, you could have closed your eyes and thought yourself at Wembley Stadium, such was the noise reverberating in the arena. The closed roof obviously helped matters but it showed that a tennis match does not need to be a serene experience. Perhaps the key to noisy tennis is simply a matter of respect. Thomond Park is, by popular consensus, one of the most intimidating places for any rugby team to visit in Europe but for kicks at goals, opposition place-kickers are shown the respect of silence. It is self-regulating policy rather than nanny-state policing; there is no good reason why tennis can't make silence an option rather than the rule.