Søren Hess-Olesen took the tennis court in Fort Worth. He was in the middle of a singles match in April with a TCU player when he heard a group of about 10 Horned Frog fans behind him.
After every point, they called him “Esben,” the name of his twin brother who plays at UNC.
“I actually thought it was funny, so it didn’t bother me,” the former UT tennis player said. “And as a college player, you also have to remember that you never get to try that again after college. So if you can embrace it and kind of enjoy it, I think you can use it to your advantage.”
Big 12 schools said goodbye to traditional tennis fan etiquette and hello to cheering, screaming and heckling during match play towards the end of last season, prompting Hess-Olesen’s experience.
College tennis is experiencing a decline. Since 1970, about 600 varsity tennis programs have folded, according to Intercollegiate Tennis Association. To keep fans, the Big 12 shortened matches last season with no-ad scoring. Tennis has since gained recognition.
“The NCAA had relaxed its rules and the ITA coaches association endorsed a more fan-friendly tennis environment as a way to generate additional interest,” said Bob Burda, the Big 12 associate commissioner for communications. “Prior to the start of last year, our coaches met annually during the offseason, so they recommended the adoption of the ITA rules.”
The change worked. Matches are now more spirited, with fans bringing posters and painting their bodies and cheering loudly throughout the match.
“For all sports you’re looking for ways to engage the next generation of fans and to help grow your fan base,” Burda said. “It is hoped that … allowing the more festive atmosphere around the tennis matches will help to do that,” Burda said.
While the new change aimed to attract more fans, many say the policy should be tweaked to foster a more positive atmosphere. Burda agrees and said that administrators don’t want tennis to devolve into a sport devoid of sportsmanship.
Hess-Olesen played under the decorum policy last season in the rules’ inaugural year.
“Overall, I think it’s a good idea,” Hess-Olesen said. “Tennis is not a very big sport in college, and I think we have to do everything we can to save it and make it more interesting for spectators.”
College tennis is naturally chaotic, often featuring six simultaneous matches on consecutive courts. Traditional cheering — which had taken place after the end of a match point — distracted players on nearby courts mid-rally.
“I still think people should come because they like to watch tennis,” Hess-Olesen said. “Some people come just so they can be loud. But if that creates a more lively atmosphere, I think they are more than welcome. This is one step towards saving college tennis, so the more people we can get out there, the better it is.”