Sports and politics have always made for uncomfortable bedfellows. This was as true back in 1936 when Jesse Owens showed Hitler the lie of his assumption of Aryan superiority, as it was in January of this year when Croatian and Serbian fans went after each other with fists and chairs in Melbourne.
The latter occasion was the third-round match between defending champion Novak Djokovic, a proud and unabashed Serbian, and Amer Delic, an American citizen who happened to be born in Bosnia. It probably didn’t help that Delic dared to win a set off the arrogant Djokovic. That, plus the alcohol they were imbibing, may have played a part in the building tension between their fans. The resulting melee also claimed some innocent victims.
And this was not the only event that featured hostile acting out between fans from these two countries which share a history of brutal political tension that I will not pretend to comprehend. When you’ve spent time on a small island where if you spit you will hit a relative, such in-fighting seems both pointless and unfathomable.
And so I was just as mystified when, two days later, fans of Marin Cilic (of Croatia) tussled with fans of Janko Tipsarevic (of Serbia). That event attracted a lot less press attention because it happened at a bar in Melbourne and not on the hallowed grounds of the Slam itself. But its roots lay in the same conflict with the same bloody history.
It would be nice if we could rely on tennis players themselves to become part of the solution. This could be accomplished any number of ways. For example, other players could have boycotted the Indian Wells event in solidarity with the Williams’ sisters following their allegations of racism. Or a player from Israel say, could make a point of playing mixed doubles with a player from a Muslim country or with a player who practices Islam, thereby setting an example of universal brotherhood. Or, more recently, other WTA players could have boycotted the event in Dubai, thereby making a clear statement that the discrimination against Israeli Shahar Peer was unacceptable.
But I won’t hold my breath. As long as there are large purses on the line, principles will always play second fiddle to financial profit.
It also takes a level of emotional maturity to make such a stand, and that may be asking too much of some players. For example, having myself witnessed up close the passion of Djokovic’s supporters and his intense responsiveness to them, I do not believe that we can rely on him to be part of any ongoing solution. Sure he publicly says the right things, but his fans probably know his heart better than we do.
Which means that solutions will have to come from the WTA and the ATP. Which brings me to the third change I would like to see in tennis -- for its leadership to find ways to reduce the negative impact of politics.
But even as I write this, I know that I am asking for too much. That would be like asking Tina Fey to protect the integrity of “30 Rock” by reducing the number of product placements. Were you as disgusted as I was by the astonishing number of references to McDonald’s “McFlurry”, or close-ups of the iPhone in the latest episode? For a while there I wasn’t sure if I was watching a comedy show or a well-embedded advertisement. Once you've sold your soul to the corporate television monster, I'm afraid there's no turning back.
Which then brings me to us, the tennis fans. It’s clear to me that we are the ones who will have to step up and address this fiasco. It’s going to be up to us to prove that our love for tennis can transcend politics, regardless of whose hands are on the racket. Of course there is a time to root for one’s country -- and that is during Davis or Fed Cup, and, naturally, during the Olympics. The rest of the time, our focus could only be on the quality of the tennis being played, regardless of who is playing it.
Hey, I can dream can’t I?