05 November, 2011

Citizen Player?

The top 100 or so players on the WTA and ATP tours all have pretty impressive collections of passport stamps.  Both tours field events in more than 30 countries annually bringing this global game to fans from Canada to Australia and everywhere in between.  The game's stars are, not surprisingly, a similarly international lot.  World No. 2 Rafael Nadal is a hometown kinda guy, born and bred in Manacor, Mallorca.  On the other hand, his longtime rival Roger Federer might draw a lot of fans waving Swiss flags to the stands, but he's equally at home in his other base in Dubai.  WTA world No. 4 Maria Sharapova lives down the road from my buddy in Manhattan Beach, CA (he goes to her Starbucks), although she plays under the Russian flag.  To be fair, it's not just the superstars, lesser known WTA player Varvara Lepchenko was born in Uzbekistan and now, a naturalized citizen, plays for the US and is based in Allentown, PA, maybe a thirty minute drive from where I grew up.
The borderless nature of tennis raises an intriguing question.  In this sport, what exactly is the value of national identity?

Sports are by and large tribal affairs.  Fans and players alike are clad in the colors and gear of their villages, hometowns or home nations.  The pinstripes of the New York Yankees, the chunkier stripes of FC Barcelona's football (OK, soccer) kit and the (virtually) all black gear of New Zealand rugby are known the world over.  They are unambiguous symbols, for not only the iconic teams that wear (and sell) them, but the massive, fervent fanbases that have supported them for a century or better.  The two biggest sporting events in the world, the World Cup and the Olympic Games ascribe perfectly to this mindset of sports as tribal contest.  These contests are staged on a virtually neutral, ever-changing choice of ground with all countries sending their best warriors to ultimately decide a measure of national supremacy until they meet again in four years.  

Team sports provide a deep sense of history, linking the long hushed cheers roused by long gone greats with the ESPN3 streamed heroics of generation next.  Babe Ruth segues to Derek Jeter, great grandfather to great grandson, past to future with enviable fluidity.  Same uniform, same city, eternal.

Compared to team sports, or big international contests like the World Cup or the Olympics, tennis has a startingly jagged sense of both community and continuity.  Every decade or so, the wave builds, crests and them crashes, leaving the rider, the fan, to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start over again.  History is usually relegated to a decade, maybe two, quite rarely more and then the narrative is picked up by someone else, somewhere else.  The women now end their season not in the WTA championships' quasi-ancestral home of New York, but in Istanbul.  The men, once in Hannover, now close up shop (however briefly) after London.  Agassi fans become Nadal fans, Steffi fans become Serena fans, the game marches on, but the rest is ever-evolving.

This makes news of cases like the currently simmering Affaire Bogomolov.  For the uninitiated, Alex Bogomolov Jr. was a journeyman pro with a couple of brief stints inside the top 100 best known for his first marriage to WTA pro and eventual Playboy pinup Ashley Harkleroad.  After an largely undistinguished, but serviceable career, he suddenly caught fire in 2011, in the process, elevating his ranking into the ATP top 40.  The issue is that Bogomolov has requested to play Davis Cup, not for the US, whose flag he's always played under, having moved to the United States as an 11 year old, but for his native Russia.  

Why is Bolgomolov, ostensibly an American, petitioning to play for Russia?  Well, common sense, for one.  Despite the seemingly endless legions of Russian -ovas atop the WTA tour, 33rd ranked Bogomolov would actually be the No. 2 Russian and therefore, a likely pick for Captain Shamil Tarpischev.  Let's call a spade a spade, hurt feelings and reheated Cold War rhetoric aside, Bogomolov would have been a longshot for the US team's four slots anyway.  He's still ranked behind US team stalwarts Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick and John Isner, plus we typically reserve two spots for doubles specialists, Bob and Mike Bryan (virtually an automatic point given their 19-2 record in Davis Cup play).  It may seem distasteful, especially to some in the USTA who have provided significant coaching and financial support to Bogomolov, but it is hardly unprecedented for a player to serve (tennis balls) under a different flag.  Canada in particular has been stung by players defecting in the name of sport, remember Mary Pierce?  You know, the Canadian born, American raised, Frenchwoman. There's also Greg Rusedski, the Canadian turned Brit.  The luck finally turned in the Great White North recently with Montenegro-born Milos Raonic flying the Maple leaf of his adopted home nation.

The concept of "playing for your country" is often discussed reverentially in hushed tones as the most noble pursuit in sport.  It is the central conceit behind the Davis and Federation Cups, as it is in the Olympic Games (to which tennis was re-added in the 1980s).  In team sports, this makes all the sense in the world.  Making your national team in say basketball, football (err, soccer) or hockey, is, in and of itself, an immense source of pride.  The concept in this, as most individual sports, seems inconsequential at best; forced at worst.  What exactly, is a tennis player's country?  Is it the one they're born in, they one they currently live in, the one whose federation supports their career?  For simplicity's sake at least, in a perfect world (or more reasonably in the past) it would be all three.  In a sport as global as tennis, oftimes, it seems archaic to attempt to tie a player with a specific nation-state.  

Novak Djokovic, for example, is a veritable national hero in Serbia, but we all know that he (ostensibly for tax purposes) "lives" in Monaco, does that suddenly make him Monagesque?  Doubtful.  What of Kim Clijsters?  The Belgian player married an American and lives, at least part time in New Jersey.  Her daughter, Jada is certainly an American (presumably a dual citizen).  Should Clijsters fly the stars and stripes next year in Fed Cup?  I'd say no, but she'd have a strong case if she chose to do so.  With the jetsetting schedule of tennis stars, even the All-American Bryan Brothers have played tournaments in twelve different countries this year, basically spending at least a third of every year abroad.

Which brings us to the crux of the debate, the relevance of national competitions.  When the Davis Cup debuted in 1900 as a US versus UK challenge, it was perfect reflection of the times, a reflection that has grown increasingly arcane.  It's not that no one's interested in watching the Davis Cup, or that the format and scheduling are bothersome, they are, but that's neither here nor there. It's more a question of how do we attach a player to a country and frankly, should we even bother?  American commentators often harp about Sharapova being half an American, hoping she will one day play for the country she's lived more than half her life in.  She hasn't, and I doubt she ever will.  She identifies herself as Russian and that is, and should be, her choice.

If anything, she, like most of the rest, are citizens of the world.  A tribe without regard to national boundaries or identities.  It doesn't matter what passport they might carry, just that they show up, play their game and play it well.  That's where the game is going.  Heck, that's where it's been for a while now.  Fans primarily identify with players, players with each other.  In this traveling circus we call tennis, what does national identity mean?  Well, my take is it means less and less already quite little.  Tennis fans emotionally invest in the players and the matches, not the team colors.

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  1. Nice thoughtful read, V. I think you are right, tennis players are a traveling band of nomads, but that doesn't stop people who are rooted in nationalism from yearning for a team to represent the "ideal." I know so many people in the U.S. who don't give a crap about tennis anymore because we aren't winning Slams anymore. The Aussies and the Brits don't seem to feel the same way -- why is that? Still, I don't think you can ignore it (the flag, or flags). Look at the Chinese: they are bursting with pride because Na Li has won a Slam. It's a nice tool to grow the game, this nationalistic fervor, but I don't think it's a big deal when a few outliers want to jump around and play under different flags.