Post-Trump Tennis Fandom

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.

Screenshot 2016-11-17 13.46.07.png

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.

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14 thoughts on “Post-Trump Tennis Fandom”

  1. Thank you for saying this – well put. Fans abroad also take notice of what you’ve outlined above, and it makes me think twice before supporting these players. They’re open about it, as their twitter accounts show.

    I’ll be supporting the players you talked about, and the WTA ladies too. Like Madison Keys, Louisa Chirico, Vania King, Jamie Hampton, Nicole Gibbs, Jamie Loeb, Grace Min and Sachia Vickery.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article, well stated. Funnily enough, I was at the Champaign Challenger on Wednesday and I’m about 98.4% you sat in the vicinity of my girlfriend and I before we had to take off…but because my Twitter is protected and we haven’t interacted, I thought it might be kind of awkward to say something (well, that, and I’m terribly shy anyway). So I didn’t. But, well, I’ll say it now: I love your content! 🙂

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      1. I didn’t think to check this for replies until just now but sure thing, friend! If you want to follow me, I’m @asktheages – it’ll be nice to know someone local who’s as much as a fan of the sport as I am, given that I always like to joke that I know two and a half people total who like tennis, lol. Also, we are CERTAINLY on the same page politically, that’s for sure!

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  3. Wow, CP, perfectly put. I’m also glad to learn more about the tennis world and your interests. I wonder whether what you say could translate across more sports worlds…though tennis doubtless has many unique traits. Thanks so much for your energy and activism!

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  4. many of the western countries, and the players who dwell in or play for them, come from a place of privilege. pretty much every country with a slam for example. by contrast, players who come from eastern european countries, or asian, or smaller, are not afforded the same kind of entitlement, privilege and generosity, particularly in the media. that trickles down into fandom. tennis is a sport of privilege, but mainly for those already privileged. also brexit is not unlike trump in some of its prejudices.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent piece. I only recently realized how many of the US players (especially on the ATP) are intolerant jerks. I guess it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise given the culturally elite/privileged setting of tennis even in 2016. Still, it’s sad. Maybe we can trade some of our guys for Andy Murray, who is about the only ATP player I can think of who speaks out on the right side of things. Sigh…Whiteness is a hell of a drug (and I say that as a White, cis/het man.)

    PS- Found you via the wonderful Body Serve podcast. Love your perspective and writing. Will be reading, following etc. for sure. Cheers!

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    1. Thank you for reading! I do wish the liberals in men’s tennis were as outspoken as the –whatever we call them now, but I can see given the prevailing sentiments how you might have to get into a position of status like Andy, before you carry that flag.

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      1. but I can see given the prevailing sentiments how you might have to get into a position of status like Andy, before you carry that flag.

        Are you referring to losing endorsement opportunities? How much of their $ comes from endorsements for say a #30-200 ranked player? I’m guessing that most of their income derives from match wins, but you probably know much better than I do. It seems like anyone in the top 10 could comfortably speak up with minimal economic loss. Anyways, the other problem is that we are talking about mostly White guys in their mid-late 20’s with all the ignorance, ambivalence, privilege (and lack of self-awareness) that goes along with that demographic, so yeah, not holding my breath.

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  6. Thanks for writing this! I’ve had a difficult time with American men’s tennis since around the time Sam Querrey showed up as a lazy 21 year old and announced he didn’t like playing in Europe. It’s been nothing but entitlement whines ever since. I haven’t been able to root for a guy like John Isner for years.

    It is notable that our last great generation of American players came from families of immigrants: Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Michael Chang. Jim Courier was the only US champion from that era with two parents who were born in America, but I don’t think Jim came from an extremely privileged family.

    I feel strongly that the reason countries like Serbia have produced so many outstanding players boils down to intangibles born from hardship. Serbia had no wealthy federation and no resources. Obviously not every great player comes from less wealthy backgrounds, but it’s the same thing you see in American basketball: the sport is a way out for people who grow up in insecure circumstances.

    Which also leads me to my next issue: the USTA’s professional development program may be providing too much money and coaching and coddling of these players. Let them pay coaches out of their own pocket. I want to see young hungry guys have access to great coaching, but something is wrong when more established players take advantage of these resources, especially when they don’t train hard or produce.

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  7. Thank you for this! I found you via Ana Mitrić on Twitter. I have nothing to add to your comments about the entitled men who the USTA is trying to make us fans of. I can also say that this same attitude carries over the US analysts and commentators. and makes listening to them difficult to put it mildly. I will be following your blog going forward. Tennis needs more voices like yours.

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