Oops, They Did it Again!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Award ceremonies in sports can be tricky. The competition has been exhilarating, but what follows risks being too inane, too long and just too much of a comedown. In this category, I’m about to bestow a lifetime achievement award upon the Australian Open for its tone deafness. I do this with some regret, because this is also the same tournament that gives us wonderfully entertaining and insightful on-court interviews of the winner of the matches leading up to the final (well done, Jim Courier). But the ceremony after the men’s final is becoming hard to watch.

Six years ago, it was the presenters being oblivious to the fact that Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were dying after a five-hour, 53-minute match and kept droning on as Djokovic and Nadal were hunched over. This year’s ceremony after Roger Federer beat Marin Cilic in five sets to win his 20th major was not as bad, but it still was frustratingly tone deaf in at least one respect. After the far-too-many speakers had had their microphone time, Federer accepted the trophy and made some wonderfully heartfelt comments, closing in tears. The crowd erupted at the end of his comments and showed no signs of stopping.

The in-tune ESPN announcers did not say a word, showing appropriate deference to a moment that was already special and seemed destined for unforgettable. Yet the emcee of the post-match proceedings stepped in, went to the microphone and thanked the crowd for coming, which cut off the applause. John McEnroe in the ESPN booth—in an uncharacteristic display of subtlety and restraint—commented simply that the applause probably would have gone on for another 10 minutes if “that gentleman had not intervened.” He was right.

One of the greatest moments I ever saw in sports was in 1995 in Baltimore when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak. When the game became official after the 5th inning, the crowd broke into applause that lasted for 20 minutes. I did not think it was possible to applaud anything for 20 minutes straight without wishing it would stop, but it was that kind of moment. The MLB players’ strike had happened the year before, yet here was someone who had been true, classy and consistent for 13 years. Everyone wanted to acknowledge it, including the opposing team, the (then) California Angels, who were on the top of their dugout steps doing the same thing for 20 minutes that the crowd was doing.

In another realm, Charlie Chaplin lived in exile in Switzerland for almost two decades before being invited back to the United States for the 1972 Academy Awards ceremony. The assembled VIPs applauded him for 12 minutes straight, acknowledging what he meant to the origins of American cinema.

The ovation for Federer in Melbourne was headed in that direction. Here is a man who represents all that is good in sports, still at the top of his craft at age 36. That he undoubtedly is the greatest of all time in his sport (and perhaps in any sport) was being validated by the fact that the only other man who might lay claim to that title, Rod Laver, was himself taking pictures of the ceremony with his iPhone. Why in the world would anyone seek to limit this? The fans obviously wanted to show their appreciation for the man and the moment, and there is no one more deserving of that applause than Federer (not even Chaplin or Ripken). The fact that Federer showed how much it meant to him by shedding tears made the moment even more special. I would not have cut the fans off any more than I would have cut Federer off in his post-match remarks.

What is particularly unsettling in this regard is that the speakers before Federer would speak in halting phrases in order to invite golf-like applause throughout their comments. Does anyone prefer artificial and solicited applause as opposed to organic and spontaneous applause that is flowing like a waterfall? When the latter happens, let it flow.

So, here’s my suggestion to the Australian Open organizers for next year: Take your inspiration from George Costanza and make it “opposite day.” Whatever your off-pitch instincts tell you to do, do it the other way. For instance, if you are inclined to have a whole procession of speakers get microphone time after the match, cut the numbers down. To each of the speakers, if you are tempted to say more, say less. If you feel obliged to repeat the “thank yous” that were uttered by the previous person, don’t. We don’t need seven “thank yous” to the same person—this isn’t a Trump cabinet meeting. Do not ask for applause and do not invite applause. Make your comments and if the crowd feels like applauding, they will. And when a glorious and historic moment arises, as was well on the way with Federer, for God’s sake get out of the way and let it happen.

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