I always look forward to the Champaign Challenger coming to town. I go just about every year. In 2013, when my day job allowed, I covered it for The Changeover. I love the Challenger tour. It’s a mix of “tomorrow’s stars today,” as they say, and sometimes yesterday’s stars today, which they don’t say, but whatever. It’s pro tennis, and it’s good. And more people should go.
But this year, more than ever, I needed to go. I lost three friends this year, two to cancer and one to ALS. One was my midwife (or rather mid-dude) who delivered my child and about a third of the kids in town. He chronicled his journey with ALS, and was also profiled by People magazine for his bike ride across the country, completed with one working arm and a lot of help. Just one of those splendid people you feel glad you knew at all, but can’t believe are gone so soon.
The other two were women even closer to me. Brilliant, strong, funny women who mentored me and changed my life as a professor, mother, and human. One held an endowed chair and was courted by Harvard. The other was a finalist for a Pulitzer. But the main thing is, they were irreplaceable to me, and I loved them both.
As it happens, watching tennis is my favorite antidepressant. That makes pro players the best manufacturers of my drug of choice. The week the Challenger came to town, I wanted to sit on a bench as much as I could, and take it all in.
Or rather, not all, because even before the election, I had noticed that most American male players, either quietly, or vociferously, voted for Donald Trump. This is not a deep, dark secret. Twitter has lately played host to the airing of inter-pro tension over politics, with Nicole Gibbs and James Blake generally holding down the liberal fort, and just about everyone else piling on from the other side.
On twitter, there has been no one more vocal about his politics than Tennys Sandgren. A cursory view down his twitter feed (if he doesn’t delete posts, which doesn’t seem to be his style) will show that he is a consumer and amplifier of alt-right social media sites. As anyone who has seen him play will note, he wears whatever he’s feeling on his sleeve for the whole world to see. I interviewed him three years ago at the Champaign Challenger, and wrote that piece in which he, as the tournament winner, emerged as the protagonist. Subsequently, I followed Sandgren on twitter and noticed that he was politically to the Right of Genghis Khan. No, even farther Right. Keep going. His tweets drip with hatred of women, Obama, and Muslims. I did horn in once. When he questioned James Blake’s experience of being racially profiled I said he should have more respect for his elders. And then I stopped following him.
And I stopped rooting for him. I just…can’t.
So when Tennys Sandgren came over to talk to me at the Challenger, I was in that moment actively trying to get out of his path.
I don’t go up to players and say hello. I know when I’m working and trying to focus, I don’t really like small talk. Also, I’m not a selfie collector. When I watch tennis, I just want to zone and think about the game.
He said he wanted to say hello, that he was sorry we obviously couldn’t agree about politics but… I honestly don’t remember the next three sentences because I was trying to think about how to change the topic. I said, well that was sweet of you to say hello (my Northern version of “bless your heart”). I may have looked pained (I am these days) because he was striking a consoling tone. I told him I’d had several friends and mentors die this year and I was low and looking forward to the tennis. (I really do want to remind people to respect their elders, because they’re not around forever.)
And then we talked briefly about tennis.
Why didn’t I carve him a new one on our many, many points of disagreement? I felt that was neither the time, nor the place.
But this here, right here, is the time and the place. This absolutely is. And I’m going there now.
Tennis, post-Trump has changed for me.
I know I’m not alone. Numerous tennis fans are struggling with enjoying their sport while realizing that the very factors that have nurtured the sport along in America (country clubs, lots of money, privileged paths to college) are often the very factors that supported Donald Trump’s rise. Sure we have the Williams sisters, paragons of the civil rights ethos. But they are outliers. They are also women. The ATP is a less democratic affair. When I went to the Challenger I was hoping to see players other than Sandgren win, and maybe, to see him get beat. The problem was, I knew several people playing him were also Trump supporters, even if they had been quieter about it.
The American men are not only failing to reassert themselves at the highest ranks, they’re getting a reputation around the circuit for their sense of entitlement. Although the American exceptionalism award for the year has to be given to Steve Johnson for suggesting a past champion shouldn’t get a wild card at the US Open because Americans would be upset, the general behavior of American men on court seems to suggest that they’re unnerved that the rest of the world is eclipsing them. Martina Navratilova has had some words about why that’s happening, delivering an unsparing rebuke of the coddling American men have had their whole lives.
I agree with that. And after the election, I have even more to say.
If you deep down believe that you’re better because of what country you were born in, or your skin color, or your religion, you’re not going to win at your game. You’re just not. And you’re not going to improve until you get over yourself. Because you’re not really listening, and you’re not really learning. Imagine if Andy Murray at age 15 had decided, I’m going to stay in Scotland to train, because I don’t want to have to learn Spanish.
As for me, I’m not going to stop watching tennis. I’m just going to change who I support.
So what American men will I cheer for now? I will cheer for players like son of immigrants, Frances Tiafoe. I’ll cheer for Michael Mmoh, whose twitter feed is as clean and uplifting as his game. I’ll cheer for Christopher Eubanks, whose only political tweet was on November 9, and it was about caring, not hating.
And I have this to say to Tennys Sandgren: Don’t explain to me that you’re sorry about what you’re not sorry about. Don’t think you come out looking better for being able to hold a short, civil conversation with a white woman with different views. That’s too safe. And it changes nothing in the long run.
As we say in some parts of this country, you can’t put lipstick on a pig.
You just have to stop being a pig.