As many of you enjoyed backyard barbeques this Labor Day, I found myself on Amtrak headed back to Washington after a weekend at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in New York City. Four hours on the train provided a lot of time to reflect – not only on the great matches and vibrant atmosphere of the Open, but on just how international the so-called “American Grand Slam” truly is.
A few years ago, Meridian developed a photographic exhibition chronicling the rich history of the “Jazz Ambassadors” – renowned musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington – who were selected by the State Department to serve as cultural envoys throughout Eastern Europe and the MENA region in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Meridian is continually exploring these unique avenues for diplomacy and exchange, and sports are no exception. After this weekend, however, I’m not sure there is any sport better suited to this task than tennis.
From the players to the spectators, the U.S. Open – with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island right around the corner – epitomizes the melting pot. Tennis is a largely individual sport, with players representing not only themselves, but the country from which they hail. They travel constantly, with an annual schedule that takes them from Australia to Europe, North and South America, Asia and back again. It would be hard not to share something of your own culture with the people of these diverse locales and learn a little something in return – to create a common bond around the love of sport that translates to overcoming prejudices and misunderstandings, building new friendships, and fostering the open exchange of ideas.
Politicians and PR advisors are starting to recognize the value, too. Kazakhstan, for example, has set a priority on tempting native Russians away from their home country – where the tennis culture is deep but over-crowded – to play under a new flag (which, it should be mentioned, is a question of citizenship, not location). Players like the extra support they get from the burgeoning Kazakh tennis industry, and the country itself earns a cadre of affable and admirable ambassadors. Once a fairly elite sport centered in developed nations – a history still visible in tennis’ premier annual event locations (the four Grand Slams are in Australia, France, Great Britain, and the U.S.) – the sport is also diversifying across the board. The #1 men’s player is from Serbia, Li Na is the first Chinese player in a U.S. Open semifinal this year (and she’s a woman, to boot!), and many of the top French players are from immigrant, not aristocratic, backgrounds.
Walking around the grounds at Flushing Meadows, where the Open is held, you can tell that the sponsors, at least, know they’re courting an international – and internationally-minded – audience. Meanwhile, it’s just as normal to hear fellow fans in animated conversation in a foreign tongue as it is English. Sitting in the stands, it’s not unusual to see fans passionately waving the flags of their favorite players’ home countries – yet what’s great is that half the time this isn’t their own national flag. How many times have I, a native English-speaker, cried “Vamos!” (“Let’s go!” in Spanish) for Rafael Nadal? Or this past weekend, I found myself inspired – by some great gets and spectacular passing shots – to root for Philipp Kohlschreiber (a German) even as the crowd tried to cheer on the fading top-ranked American, John Isner. (Isner, for his part, hadn’t been so much the recipient of a home welcome on a previous evening, when the crowd was firmly behind natural showman, Gael Monfils of France.)
As Steve Tignor, a veteran tennis commentator, wrote recently – and I’ll paraphrase here – ‘you wouldn’t be much of a fan if you didn’t care about these top guys.’ And of course, plenty of these “top guys” aren’t going to be your country’s native sons. While many other sports tend to divide and recruit our devotion on a geographical basis, tennis is bringing us together. (Okay, there’s the Davis and Fed Cups in tennis, which put players on national teams, but surely even these events – which bring players together all over the world – encourage a certain amount of bilateral exchange and understanding.)
Crossing all of these physical and psychological borders for the sake of sports fandom, what can be said about our likelihood to understand – or at least listen – to each other in more serious and critical situations? Sports may have a natural unifying force, but tennis unites us on a truly global scale. And with built-in codes of sportsmanlike conduct and perhaps the most cordial era – for the men’s game, at least – in recent history, it’s really a pity state-to-state diplomacy couldn’t be settled on a hard (or grass, or clay) court. Dennis Rodman may be headed back to North Korea, but I’m putting my money on the subtle, pervasive, and long-lasting effects of tennis.