On Tuesday, in front of a small crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the inconsistent Serbian Ana Ivanoivc had an early lead on Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round at the U.S. Open. At the end of a 14-shot rally late in the first set, Ivanovic slapped a weak forehand into the net.
"Come on!" screamed Azarenka, a Belarusian, as she went up in the listless sixth game, 40-30.
"She's had more come ons—I think three—than winners, zero," said Pam Shriver, the ESPN analyst.
Azarenka's come on was a little weird, from a certain perspective. It wasn't exactly a pivotal point in the match. She wasn't playing off the cresting emotions of the crowd, which in fact was dead silent. Out of context, it was a strange, inner-directed burst of emotion. But out here, it was just fine.
Over the past 10 days, the tennis campus in Flushing Meadows has been the world capital of come on. Walk the grounds and you'll hear a player say it. Flip on the U.S. Open women's semifinals today for a few minutes and one will pop out. Nationality, gender, rank, age—come on knows few bounds, except maybe language, in which case there's also vamos or allez.
"Other day, I heard it in the second point of a match," said the tennis journalist Pete Bodo. "The second point of the match! 'Come on!' That's not uncommon."
"It's just what everybody shouts," said Judy Murray, mother of Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, who said that her son is "definitely" a come on man.
"It's become the catchphrase of the tour," said Mary Carillo, the veteran tennis broadcaster for CBS and the Tennis Channel.
"I can't think of any other comparable chant or cheer or charge in any other sport," said Ted Robinson, the longtime tennis announcer for NBC and the radio play-by-play guy for the 49ers.
Why do players say this, exactly? How did this weird phrase become the catchphrase? Don't ask them.
"I guess I do say it, yeah. As far as why? I don't know," said John Isner, the top-ranked American in the world. "Maybe someone started that trend—even Roger says come on. Rafa, too. Maybe it just rolls off the tongue well, I don't know."
"I don't think about it. It just happens," said Melanie Oudin, the 21-year-old who was the sweetheart of the 2009 U.S. Open. "One time, I know they counted how many times I said it, especially the year I did well here. I know I said it a lot. When I played Maria [Sharapova in 2009], I saw somewhere how many come ons we said—who had the most come ons—and I had more than she did. It was like at least—at least—25."
"Yeah, I say it, but I don't know what it is," said Milos Raonic, the 22-year old who's ranked No. 11 and widely expected to become tennis's next big thing. "I think growing up, it's the reaction you saw on TV, then you did it as a kid, and then it falls into habit."
But where did he hear it first on TV? How did this all start? That was a head-scratcher.
"Sampras didn't really say it," he said, thinking out loud. "I can't see him really—"
He trailed off.
The players might be a little lost, but there's something approaching consensus among the elders of tennis world.
"I think Lleyton Hewitt was the first one to start doing it," said Brad Gilbert, the former player and current coach and ESPNer.
"I don't know who's first, but for some reason when you said come on, the first name that jumped to my mind was Lleyton Hewitt," said Robinson.
"Hewitt," said Carillo. "I think the genesis of come on—at least he made it big."
So what does the 32-year-old two-time Grand Slam champion have to say about starting a trend that has swept the game?
"I'm not sure," Hewitt told me. "It's just something that came out. I play with a lot of emotion on the court. So, yeah, it just started as a kid in junior tournaments and then I kept doing it on the tour."
But you did it. You were the father of come on.
"Nah, obviously you would hear Jimmy Connors and guys getting themselves pumped up on the court," he said. "That's just how I play on tennis. I don't know. The word was probably used quite a bit before my time."
Was it? Let's ask the 68-year-old Brit Virginia Wade, who won her first Grand Slam at the 1968 U.S. Open.
"Yeah, I'm sure I did it," she told me the other day in the player's garden, outside Arthur Ashe Stadium. A friend of hers was skeptical. Did you really say it? she asked.
"It wasn't, 'Yeah, come on!'" Wade said, faux-shouting. "It was very much"—she started whispering, all British-like—"a 'come on.'"
Come on was more than likely murmured here and there, with Hewitt being the one to turn it into an act of theatrical expression. But in the last five years, the giants of the game have ramped it up to such a degree that the younger players think this is just what you do.
"When I was little, I remember watching the Williams sisters, and I know they definitely said it," said Oudin.
"I think Roger's the one who brought the trend to the forefront because it was so unusual for him to do anything," said Bodo. "And he's such a gentleman. When other people saw Federer say come on, the more well mannered players said, 'Well, if Roger can do it, why can't I?'"
There's hard evidence to back the point; the most famous players of this generation say it often enough for there to be YouTube compilations. Here's one for Federer. Here's one for the Williams sisters. And here's one for Maria Sharapova.
By now, come on isn't even exclusively an English phrase; Azarenka and Federer certainly aren't the only foreign players using it. How many others do it?
"What's really interesting to me how it's become a kind of esperanto in the game," said Bodo. "You see these freakin' Spanish guys and Bulgarian girls saying come on!"
"I always found it funny when people say it from different countries," said Lindsay Davenport, the three-time Grand Slam champion, who retired in 2010. "I remember playing a Japanese opponent—I don't remember who it was—a very quiet, sweet girl and being so stunned one time when she yelled out come on against me. I didn't know she spoke English. She yelled it!"
A strange corollary is the adoption of vamos as a sort of rival phrase. As Isner said, Rafael Nadal—who usually goes with vamos—will belt out a come on from time to time. And sometimes it works the other way around.
"You hear a lot of players shouting come on but you will also hear players shouting vamos who are not Spanish," said Judy Murray. Nick McCarvel, a freelance tennis writer, recalls Ana Ivanovic using vamous after she began dating Fernando Verdasco.
"Vamos is international," said Tracy Austin, the two-time U.S. Open champion. "You see people like [Svetlana] Kuznetsova say vamos."
"She trained in Spain," replied Carillo, who was sitting with Austin at the Tennis Channel studio in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
"She did, but it's funny hearing a Russian say vamos," replied Austin.
At least that's clear! Some players are taking their come ons—or substitute phrases—and turning them into nonsensical grunts.
"Sharapova's working on a daily double," said Bodo, who's been covering the game for four decades. "She's got the horrible scream plus the really desperate comeonnnn. It doesn't even sound like come on! It sounds like something else."
"You used to be able to hear, like, 'Come. On.' Now it's just like a yell," said McCarvel. "[Petra] Kvitova is famous for this. She'll say pojd—which is come on in Czech—and it comes out as prruhhh, and you're just like, 'Wait, what?'"
Strange customs are starting to grow around come on and its foreign variants. Last month, at the Rogers Cup in Canada, for example, Sara Errani—an Italian—was playing the Frenchwoman Alize Cornet. Late in the second set, Cornet won a point off an Errani error and muttered a quiet vamos. Errani, a workhorse who's known for a cool temper, was pissed. Bad etiquette! A French person should not be saying vamos!
"Why you say vamos?" Errani screamed over the net. "Say allez. Why you say vamos? You never say vamos and today you say vamos."
Errani and Cornet aren't the only ones quarreling over involved points of come on etiquette. The beef between Sloane Stephens and Serena Williams? That started with a come on controversy, too. At an Australian Open tune-up in January, Williams won a critical point at the net. She pumped her fist. She shouted come on.
Stephens didn't like this. Right after the point, if you read her lips, she said, "Disrespectful." This tournament has a quirky rule that allows for on-court coaching. Stephens repeated her complaint to her coach.
"Those come ons were just disrespectful," Stephens told her coach. "They're just disrespectful."
"You can belt a few if you want, ya know?" her coach replied. "There ain't nothing wrong with that. If the timing's right, ya know?"
The chair called time.
Stephens's coach then said, unwittingly, "All right kid, come on."
These people don't even know that they're saying it.
Not every come on is the same. There are two main come ons, really. There's the one that's all about getting a tennis player pumped up. As Raonic told me: "I think come on after a good point." He added that he'll say it to "pump myself up." This, by far, is the most commonly used version. It's self-exhortation: Look at that great shot. I needed that!
And then there's the other way to use it: to play mind games.
"A lot of these come ons, they're trying to send a message to their opponent," said Austin. "And there are some who say come on and they're almost in the face of the opponent—I still have trouble with that. Their opponent misses a shot in the net and they're like, Come on! It's like a challenge."
"A lot of this is, unconsciously, to intimidate," said Bodo.
The most notorious come on—"the most infamous come on," Carillo says—was during the 2011 U.S. Open women's final, when Williams was playing Sam Stosur. Williams, whether to intimidate, whether to pump herself up, shouted it out before the point was over. It started a meltdown. Williams lost the point and fought with the chair. ("Aren't you the one that screwed me over last time?") Williams wound up losing in straight sets to Stosur, a shocker.
Whatever their purpose, come on and vamos and allez are now simply a part of tennis, just as surely as a blue court and a yellow ball are a part of tennis. Why? The answer to that question requires a circuitous trip back to days that were, in their way, both more demure and rather less.
Let's start with the modest part first. Did people scream come on in the '70s, '80s, or '90s?
"No," said Austin.
"There was no talking!" Carillo said.
"There was no talking," Austin agreed. "You were not demonstrative like that. It was something that for me, I must say, because I'm kind of a traditionalist, it's been something for me to get used to. Now it's so prevalent—Allez! Come on! Everything else. No, I never said anything. I didn't say a word."
"We had a bunch of old tiebreaks that we were showing during the delay," Carillo said. (She was talking about old tennis matches CBS showed during a rain delay during Monday's telecast.) "Nobody did it. Pete didn't say anything. Even Connors. He didn't emote to himself—he played to the crowd. He didn't have to tell himself to come on."
She continued: "Connors played to the camera once or twice, sure, but we showed Tracy, we showed Capriati and Seles and Chris and Martina and Pete, and it was quiet! The racquets did the talking. It was amazing."
They were quiet, but they were also much crazier, too.
"It's funny, Connors used to complain about how they're gonna drive personality out of the game with all these rules and all that stuff—you know, the reaction to McEnroe and Connors," said Bodo. "I think he was right, but I think what they've done in a weird way is internalized it. So now all that stuff that maybe at one point would have been externalized with linespeople and the crowd or whatever—McEnroe throwing sawdust in the guy's face, Connors shaking the umpire's stand, Nastase screaming at a linesperson—it's all self-contained now, that's the only vehicle. It's the only outlet, in a sense."
Tennis was a crazy sport back then. McEnroe was throwing sawdust in patron's faces. Nastase? Here's a bit from a 1976 UPI piece on the U.S. Open. It described Nastase as a "fiery Romanian" who "blasted one ball at a courtside photographer, smashed a few others at the umpire, cursed the linesmen relentlessly, spat at Hans-Jurgen Pohmann after beating him, tried to climb a fence to get at a young heckler and nearly fought with Pohmann in the locker room."
If those things aren't exactly done anymore—remember just how much people freaked out at Serena Williams for screaming at a lineswoman at the U.S. Open four years ago—tennis players still have lots of crazy energy. They've just diverted it all into a two-word phrase, a controlled explosion.
"The difference is that kind of emotive explosiveness has been now been channeled into what is an acceptable method," Bodo continued. "Very honestly, it's more acceptable to the crowd and the observers in general—the crowd and the pundits—to see these idiotic come ons every two points than it was to see Connors tell someone to suck his dick."
When I asked Isner how often he says come on, he said often enough and added: "So long as it's not a cuss word."
So, come on. An odd two-word phrase started by Lleyton Hewitt, adopted by a few greats, that's spread to every single player in the game, to be shouted and barked and screamed all match long. We're stuck with it now, right?
"This all built up incrementally," said Bodo. "And it became part of the vocabulary. The vocabulary is very limited in tennis. It's supposed a quiet game, you're not supposed to talk, you're not supposed to do anything. Whatever you've got verbally has to go a long way."
He laughed. It can't be stopped.