Big 12 tennis decorum policy taking fan experience to the next level

These fans now have the luxury to do more than sit around, eating strawberries and cream. TCU Athletics

Guillermo Nunez says tennis this year has been a "different experience."

"I'm kind of used to play in a quiet place, in a quiet zone," says the TCU freshman.

As a whiz kid in Chile, Nunez played matches at which fans spoke in whispers during points and were silent while he served. Traditional tennis.

Then Nunez came to the Big 12, where the "Do Not Disturb" signs have been shredded.

On courts from Austin to Waco, players have had to learn to deal with chanting, cheering, jeering and smart-aleck remarks because of a new rule that allows fans to be as vocal as they would be at a basketball, baseball or football game.

The rule has helped draw bigger crowds and generate excitement. Yet some coaches don't like it, pointing to loud fans who verbally attack players personally and violate the spirit of sportsmanship and the game itself.

Because he's height-challenged, Nunez says he's heard short jokes. During one match at Oklahoma, he was targeted in two languages.

"All these fraternity guys who speak Spanish ... all of them were yelling at me," he says. "It doesn't matter if you are playing, if you are resting, it doesn't matter. So everyone was yelling at me. Funny things, annoying things."

Yet Nunez adapted. He stopped worrying about the noise and focused (successfully) on his play. He's 25-5 in singles this season for sixth-ranked TCU, which hosts a four-team NCAA regional May 8. Along the way, he's learned to enjoy playing in front of big crowds and amped-up fans.

"It's an amazing atmosphere," he says. "I've never experienced before this atmosphere, playing in front of that many people. It's like Davis Cup."

His teammate Will Stein agrees.

"You always have the fraternity guys out there trying to cause havoc and trying to have a good time, but it's all in good fun and that's what makes it exciting," he says. "I'd rather play in front of people making comments about me and trying to get under my skin than to have nobody there and have it be a dead atmosphere."

Seeking fans, excitement

Officially, the rule is called the Big 12 Tennis Decorum Policy. It went into effect this season. It says, "Spectators are to behave under the same principles/guidelines of other sports."

In other words, fans aren't required to be quiet during points and are allowed to cheer and chant without stopping, the way fans do at soccer and basketball games.

It's sometimes referred to as the Roditi Rule, after TCU coach David Roditi, a proponent who believed it could help draw fans to a sport that has often been ignored.

Roditi laughs off the tag, saying he was just one of five in the subcommittee that came up with the rule.

"I don't know, maybe I did the most talking," he says. "Maybe I'm the one that was pushing it the hardest."

Though he believes the rule needs to be tweaked after the season to prohibit fans from being too negative, in general he likes what it has sparked: bigger, more involved crowds and attention for the players.

And attention is what Roditi wants for his team and Big 12 tennis, which has one of the strongest conferences in the nation in 2015. All six teams are in the NCAA tournament, and five are ranked in the nation's top 10.

When Roditi, a TCU standout in the '90s, took over as head coach in 2010, one of his goals was to increase fan interest. He says he wrote "1,000" on a board in his office as an attendance target, and the Horned Frogs have leaped over that mark, using marketing, food giveaways, pre-match player introductions and fan involvement. TCU led the nation in total and average attendance in 2013 and 2014, and three times last year drew more than 1,000. This year, TCU is again among the national attendance leaders and reported more than 2,000 fans at its match against Texas in mid-April.

Roditi even worked with student Ryan Dysktra to create a fan group called Purple Reign. Twenty to 30 purple-clad students show up and get loud throughout, with chants and cheers for break points, aces, overhead smashes and victories.

Dykstra says the intent is not to heckle opponents.

"We try to keep it classy," he says. "We're not purposely heckling someone. But if it [the cheering] works out that way and it helps the match, then so be it."

More fans and attention can have residual impact, with more sponsor involvement, facility improvements and a boost in recruiting.

"What 18-year-old doesn't like playing in front of 250 or 300 or whatever sorority girls?" Roditi asks, laughing. "That helps, too."

He adds: "I think it's more fun to play in front of more people. People that know me know that I like -- I love -- the entertainment side of tennis."

So, Roditi is for anything that puts more people in the seats, and he's convinced the new rule helped. He believes fans who came to matches in the past and were shushed for being loud during action likely never came back.

"Tennis has such a perception about it," he says. "You have to be quiet and eat strawberries and cream ... I don't like that."

Neither does Matt Knoll, the director of tennis for Baylor, the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. He says his players "unanimously" like the rule.

"Everybody likes to play in front of big crowds, and this has helped that," he says.

Plus, he believes tennis players can handle the noise, saying that if a free throw shooter in basketball can make a shot with "15,000 people waving their arms" at him, there's no reason a tennis player can't get in his second serve in a similar situation.

'It caused problems'

Yet not everyone is happy with the way the rule evolved. In spirit, it was to allow fans to cheer for their players. In practice, it opened the door for hecklers. The part of the rule that stipulates against "abusive comments" got trampled.

Roditi said the rule needs to be tweaked to prohibit jeers and personal attacks. Texas coach Michael Center has even stronger views.

"The original intent of the rule was to allow the fans to be more verbal in support of their own team," he says. "I never, ever would have considered supporting this rule if I thought it was designed to attack the opponent."

Center said he has heard verbal bashing of players.

"I don't think we can continue to have it the way we had it this year because it was not productive," he says. "It caused problems. ... It turned into poor sportsmanship."

While he said most matches had positive atmospheres, others featured fans who went too far. When asked if his players liked the new rule, Center said:

"Well, I don't think they enjoyed someone standing six inches behind them and telling them 'You suck' and 'Your forehand sucks' and 'You're going to double-fault' every time they hit the ball for three hours."

Center praised the atmosphere at venues such as TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and said the crowds at the recent Big 12 tournament at Baylor were fine -- after coaches met beforehand and agreed that fan involvement should be more positive.

But Center said a Texas home match with Baylor during the regular season, in which a group of Baylor fans traveled to Austin, was the worst example of stretching the rule where it wasn't supposed to go.

"They brought a group of guys over here and their whole thing was to attack, attack, attack," he says. "To me, they ruined it for everyone."

Baylor's Knoll said he doesn't condone such behavior. He saw fans cross the line at other Big 12 venues and said the conduct of a few shouldn't torpedo the rule.

"I'm happy talking about playing in front of people," Knoll said, laughing. "That was the idea of trying to do this, and I think it clearly grew our crowds and our players liked it and the fans liked it. Nothing's perfect, but I think it's hard not to feel like it was a great step when you look at it from that context."

'You feel relevant'

In January, UC Santa Barbara made a trip to Fort Worth to play TCU, in part because of the Horned Frogs' reputation for large and engaged crowds. UCSB coach Marty Davis wanted to see what he might borrow from TCU to help his own home attendance.

Davis said they enjoyed the experience, including Purple Reign, and incorporated some ideas -- such as some "humorous hecklers" that now attend home matches. He likened the TCU atmosphere to Davis Cup, where fans often are loud.

"Nothing was over the line," says Davis. "It was just fun."

The Gauchos even brushed off some mild heckling.

"We had one guy, he hit a couple balls wide into the alley, and so there were a couple guys just on him," recalls Davis. "'Hey, that's not part of the court, dude! You're not playing doubles. Singles, dude!'"

When Big 12 teams host NCAA tournament regionals May 8, the conference's decorum rule won't be in effect. NCAA rules will govern. And when the 2016 Big 12 season begins, chances are the decorum rule will be modified.

If it can retain the intent of boosting fun without allowing abuse, Roditi sees the rule as having a lot of positives.

"Whether you're the visiting team or home team, for those 2½ to 3 hours, you feel relevant," he says. "You feel like that athlete you've been watching on TV, and it's pretty cool."