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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

The Electro-Acoustic Sounds of Tennis

The US Open tennis tournament begins in the final week of August in New York City. Last year during the pandemic the tournament was delayed, and no fans were allowed to be there.

Which has led me to think about the sounds of the US Open. There are several racket sports that make interesting sounds—badminton, squash, platform tennis, racquetball and even ping pong. But tennis is different. The matches are extraordinarily long and so are some of the points. Yes, individual play can also be explosive and short when you consider the big servers. But, for the most part, the matches unfold slowly, providing every opportunity for a player to surge ahead or fall behind and having a steady sustainable mental stamina is important to winning. The commentators call these energy changes momentum shifts and when they are not commenting on the actual, physical play taking place, they often dwell on the mental state of a player and imagine the kinds of obstacles and challenges they face in their minds. This seems a little unwarranted, even bogus to me for if you’ve watched long enough one thing you can be sure of is that a player can quickly recover from such lapses and take control of a match when it matters. Or crumble before your eyes when they appeared to be in control. The outcome is never certain. The statistics can always yield to something new.

But I love the game of tennis. I have played since I was a teenager and although I've never risen to the ranks that I may have once thought possible, I continue to get enjoyment from tennis even as my body ages and I simply cannot move as well as I once did. With age, I have also changed the perspective from which I view the game. As a young man, I sought competition, speed, and athletic shot-making. As an older man, I have less desire to compete, and my shots are less powerful. But I have replaced those aspects of the game with a kind of mental absorption in tennis. Author David Foster Wallace, himself a semi-pro tennis player, once put it this way. In tennis, you "disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win." I don't know about the winning part, but the transcendence of tennis is what it's all about for me now. It's not an error-free game—for example, no one has ever served a perfect match of only aces--so the motivation I have is to continue to improve my shots, my footwork, and my guile as I get older. I live for that memorable shot that nobody expected, that terrific get and subsequent winner of a drop shot exchange with an opponent. But I refuse to compete with others. I have enough stress in my life already to be subsumed by stress in my most enjoyable athletic pursuit. It’s a personal thing.

Foster Wallace again: "Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive."

I've been making an annual trip to the US Open for the past twenty years. It is one of the four major tennis tournaments held each year and the only one grounded in the US. I have often brought family and friends to the tournament, but mostly I go by myself and stay for about 12 hours a day from the morning until closing. With so many repeated visits, my mind has learned to wander a bit while watching the game. Sometimes it is distracted by other visitors in the stands, the kids carrying their giant yellow tennis balls designed for capturing autographs of players at the conclusion of a match, the occasional verboten cell phone conversation which splits the quiet, and the chattering of impatient visitors who can barely stand sitting for two games let along an entire match. Through it all I hear the reverberant beat of the tennis racket against tennis ball, the bounce of the ball of the hard court, the squeaking of the athlete's sneakers as they maneuver gracefully, or not, to return the next shot. Then, there is the inexplicable explosion of sound when a player hits an ace, that attack when the racquet fires, that reverberating crash as the shot furiously pounds into the backstop. Or maybe a little tennis humor when someone’s shot dances along the top of the net cord until eventually falling on one side or the other. The tournament has a different ambience depending on every stadium and where you are sitting in each stadium. When it rains, the area is quickly vacated by visitors to enclosed areas and shops, leaving behind the undisturbed trickling of water from unlikely spots.

The sound of tennis is a meditation for me. It embraces my attention, shuts off my mind to distractions, and finds me fully in the moment as the ball climbs through the air and is summarily rejected by the opposing player with a strike in the opposite direction. This goes on for a long time. Enough that one could become mesmerized by the action.

A few years ago, I began to record ambient sound at the US Open. I did this primarily during the week prior to the start of the main draw, while players were practicing. Sometimes the superstars practice together, sometimes it was just they and their coaches. The benefit of recording audio during the practice week is that the enormous crowds are absent, and I can capture the actual sounds of tennis in the eerie quiet, a little like tennis being played in a cathedral. After attending the US Open each year, I sit down to assess the sounds I've captured. Sometimes I've turned the sounds in electronic musical works.

Now that it is tennis season again, and it is likely that many of us will once again be able to attend our favorite outdoor events, I thought I would play some samples of these US Open sound works from past years. In a future episode I would like to also explore how others have turned the sound of sport into music.


1. “USOpen2016”—electro-acoustic work for ambient sounds, audio processing, and synthesis. Included are the following sounds, roughly in this sequence (names denote players we hear exchanging shots either in practice or in actual play): Coco Vandeweghe and Simona Halep; Andy Murray and Dan Evans, practicing volleys; Stan Wawrinka, ground strokes; Juan Martin Del Potro and David Goffin, ground strokes; rain on my microphone; F-train subway; dripping rain; court squeegee workers; Ivo Karlovic and Donald Young, match play. 39:32

2. “USOpen2017b and beats”­—electro-acoustic work combining drumbeats with ambient and processed tennis sounds, roughly in this sequence (names denote players we hear exchanging shots either in practice or in actual play): Andy Murray and Thai-Son Kwiatkowski practicing; Rafa Nadal and Fernando Verdasco practicing; walking behind a custodial cart; Maria Sharapova, practicing solo; outdoor handball court, Houston and First Ave.; Andrea Petkovic practicing doubles; 9:55.

Background music:

  • Included are ambient sounds roughly in this sequence (names denote players we hear exchanging shots either in practice or in actual play): Ivo Karlovic playing Donald Young; Caroline Wozniacki, practicing alone with her coach; sounds of a match on the Grandstand; sounds of a match at Court 11; crickets on the grounds; badminton sound; squash sound; platform tennis sound; racquetball sound; ping pong sound; the F Train (subway) on the way to the US Open; Andy Murray practicing with Dan Evans; Novak Djokovic practicing with Alexander Zverev; and Juan Martin DelPotro practicing with David Goffin.

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

For additional notes, please see my blog Noise and Notations.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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