War is Not Healthy for Tennis Players and Other Living Things

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Tennis War Stories: Part III

By Bill Simons

The Cold War was over.

The Berlin blockande and Cuban missile crisis were but distant memories. Heady European dreamers now imagined a new world of peace. Children, at last, would play freely in a world without war.

But not in the Balkans.

Here, ethnic enmities that had long simmered in Yugoslavia’s six regions suddenly exploded, raw and fierce. Anger and conflicting agendas led to murder and mayhem. Forget a new age with peace. This was a new rage with war: a dark world of unbridled vengeful outrages and ethnic cleansing. In ’99, NATO stepped in to counter the nonstop battles. Balkan skies suddenly were mean. Bombs shook the earth, lives were shattered.

Young Ivan Ljubicic, a 14-year-old in Serbian-controlled Bosnia, knew many who simply disappeared. Ljubicic frantically fled Bosnia and barely made it to to Italy before, years later, reaching No. 3 in the world. Still, the skies were unkind, and Novi Sad, the Serbian hometown of Monica Seles, was the hardest hit. The great star, who’d long ago left for Florida, told IT, “It’s just sad. Sometimes you wonder about the whole state of the world and where human beings are going. It’s mind-boggling what we do to each other. I believe we are all the same, and I hope the consciousness level of the entire world will come to that. But it is hard to see that.”

The children of Belgrade had a quixotic relationship with the fog of war. Ana Ivanovic recalled that the day the bombing started, authorities came to her practice court and told everyone they should go home. But, she said, “The coach was like, ‘Sure, we’ll just finish the basket’ … Then, for about a week or two, we didn’t practice. After that, we used to wake up early, practice  … We were not going to school … There was a rule that [when the] matches were on, if the sirens came on, they had to finish, but no new matches [were allowed]. They invented their own rules … I never wanted to sleep alone. During the bombing, we all slept in the same room. That was paradise—my parents, my brother, all in one room. Everyone was together.”

No elite player since World War II has been impacted by war more than Novak Djokovic. The six-time Slam champion recalled that he and his extended family began the war in fear. “I watched as the twin rockets, birthed from the belly of a stealth bomber, tore across the sky above my head and sliced into a hospital just a few blocks away,” he told 60 Minutes. “Instantly, it exploded, and the horizontal structure … made it look like a giant club sandwich stuffed with fire.

I remember the sandy, dusty, metallic smell in the air, and how the whole city seemed to glow like a ripe tangerine. Now I could see my parents in the distance, ducking and running, and I pushed myself up off the ground and tore down the street in the reddish-gold light. We reached my aunt’s building and barricaded ourselves inside the concrete shelter. There were other people from twenty families. All came with their most valuable [belongings] … There were children crying. I didn’t stop shivering for the rest of the night.

For seventy-eight straight nights, my family hid out in the shelter … The whole night we would listen to detonations, and when the planes flew low, there would be a horrible noise, as if the sky were torn apart. The feeling of helplessness dominated. There was nothing we could do but … hope and pray. Usually they would attack during the night … That’s when you feel the most helpless; You know it’s coming. You wait and fall asleep, and then the horrible sound wakes you.”

There were times Novak wondered where his brothers were. His coach, Jelena Gencic—who had endured earlier bombings by Britain and Germany—lost her sister when a wall fell. There was little electricity and much hunger. Still Novak recalled, “We were kids, only 12. So we thought, ‘Okay, now we’re not obliged to go to school, we can play more tennis  … We’d go to the site of the most recent attacks, figuring that if they bombed that place yesterday, they probably wouldn’t today. We played without nets … on broken concrete. My friend Ana practiced in an abandoned pool …. We played tournaments and it brought us so much joy to play during wartime.

As we wondered whether we’d survive … my parents did everything to make life seem normal … We were surrounded by death, but they did not want us to know …. [or to know] how poor we were … Every morning there was a new crater … a new pile of rubble … As my parents were singing ‘Happy Birthday’ [at my 12th birthday party], their voices were drowned out by bombers.”

In his book Serve to Win, Novak writes, “We started the war living in fear. But … something changed … We decided to stop being afraid … We simply stopped hiding. Once you realize that you are truly powerless, a certain sense of freedom takes over. What will happen will happen … [We] began to make fun of how ridiculous our situation was. NATO was bombing bridges, so people gathered at the bridges with bull’s-eyes on their shirts, daring the bombs to hit them … These experiences became lessons. To truly accept your own powerlessness is incredibly liberating. Whenever I am extra nervous … or frustrated, whenever I feel like I am spoiled and I want more than I deserve, I try to refocus and … remember how it was … [and] the things that I really value: family, fun, joy, happiness, love.

Love.

My biggest value in life is definitely love … [I] try to never take it for granted. Because in a split second, life can turn. As hard as your journey to the stars may be … you can lose it all in an instant … You have to be aware of the hardships others face. In the end, we are not created to … be alone; we are created to learn from one another in unity and try to get this planet to be a better place.”

War, noted Novak, taught him “the importance of keeping an open mind and never ceasing to search for new ways of doing things.”

***

It was the morning that shook our days. Yes, our elders remember Pearl Harbor and the horrific day Kennedy died. But this was something else. Our axis shifted, the change tangible. As the twin towers collapsed, so did our sense of invulnerability. As the symbol fell, our anxiety rose. Fear prevailed, and soon we were enmeshed in two wars. One—the war on terror—had no clear borders. The other, in Iraq, had borders that were distant. There were hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground. a generation of victims, and goals that were, at times, less than clear.

At tennis stadiums, like elsewhere, security measures were put in place, mighty flags were unfurled, and military appreciation rites became a given. Iraq quickly became a part of the lexicon. When the ATP’s CEO Etienne de Villiers came under fire for bungling an initiative involving round-robin tennis, he said, “I made a mistake. But we need to put things in perspective. We didn’t make a decision to invade Iraq. I’ve heard words like ‘doom’ and ‘apocalyptic’ … [This] is a disaster over a furry ball going over a net.”

But there was a disheartening disaster over tennis in Iraq, where leaflets warned of wearing shorts because they showed “forbidden parts of the body.” In 2006, gunmen stopped a car carrying Iraq’s Sunni Arab national tennis coach and two Shiite members of the Davis Cup team. All were shot dead. One Sunni cleric denounced the attack, saying, Islam “is an easy religion and it allows wearing sport shorts … The acts targeting the sport are criminal.” Others countered, asking, “Why can’t tennis …  respect Islamic culture by coming out with outfits that are appropriate under Islamic law?”

Iraq’s top player, Akram Abdulkarim, said, “They were killed because they were athletes. Many athletes are killed without reason. It’s a catastrophe for Iraqi sport. It’s hard to focus on tennis in these conditions. I was playing a Davis Cup ‘selection match’ and there was crossfire right next to the court … You don’t feel free to play.”

Akram noted the war’s impact. “We don’t have money to travel … Before, Iraqi tennis had a good reputation in the Arab world. But most of the people who used to play were wealthy, and had high living standards. Most of those have now fled Iraq.”

Many observers saw the Iraqi war as a worthwhile part of the war on terror—an effort to topple a dreaded dictator, to find weapons of mass destruction, and to bring stability. Others were befuddled. “Why? Why?” asked ’83 French Open champ Yannick Noah. “Enough, okay, enough wars, whether it’s economic, or whatever, there’s no reason to go out and kill people. We shouldn’t go to these countries … Don’t we have enough? I mean, why? These kids, these women [who died], why this waste? … A lot of us think we have to be aggressive … But who’s saying, ‘Let’s make all this a little bit quieter’? Who’s there to lead us and say, ‘Okay, let’s just have a little peace’? How about enjoying each other’s differences? All I hear is how different we are.”

Today, the Iraqi War is over. Still, the Middle East conflict grinds on, a painful simmer. And no woman player has been as enmeshed in the conflict as Shahar Peer. Israel’s leading sportsperson briefly served as a sergeant in the army, and became the first Israeli tennis player ever to compete in the Gulf when she played the Qatar Open. “If my playing here helps peace,” she said, “I will be really happy. We are human. Whether we are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian doesn’t matter.”

But it did matter to The United Arab Emirates. Just as Peer was scheduled to play there in ’09, Israel attacked the Gaza Strip and the UAE refused to grant visas to Peer and her fellow Israeli Andy Ram. The ATP, Andy Roddick, the Tennis Channel and sponsors like the Wall Street Journal quickly circled their formidable wagons to counter the snub. Eventually, the WTA said that if Peer didn’t get a visa, there would be no tourney.

The next year, on the eve of the tourney, Israeli soldiers disguised as tennis fans killed a top Hamas commander just half a mile from tennis arena. Still, Peer appeared, making it to the semis. She was shadowed by 30 bodyguards, and, for security reasons, had a separate gym and an entire floor of her hotel to herself. Her breakthrough drew praise from many, including Venus Williams, who said, “I can’t imagine playing so well with these kinds of circumstances … She’s courageous. I don’t think anyone else … could do what she’s doing.” Peer said she still hoped peace was possible. “Me and the bodyguards, we talked a lot,” she said. “They were very kind. The way they treated me was amazing. They also feel [peace] is possible. But we are not the ones making the decisions … it’s not just simple people like us.”

But, on rare occasions, humble souls do tilt history. In 2010, a Tunisian fruit seller set off the Arab Spring; a gritty and giddy insurrection that transformed the life of Tunisia’s best player. Malek Jaziri recalled, “Before [the Arab Spring] you could not say what you wanted. You had to think three times before you said something.” One day at practice, Jaziri heard the roars of gunfire. Helicopters hovered, people were screaming. The uprising ruined his practice, but changed his life. “The revolution helped me so much,” recalled Jaziri, the only Arab and African to play tennis in the ’12 Olympics. “I started to play good. You feel free … you feel there is no dictator. You can do whatever you want, say whatever you want … I’m the new revolutionist.” But bliss can be an unkind mistress. In ’13, the ITF banned Tunisia from the Davis Cup because the government ordered Jaziri not to play an Israeli in Tashkent.

Of course, tennis has witnessed a bevy of other political incidents. Lotto posters of Sania Mirza, an Indian Muslim with a Pakistani superstar husband, have been burned. Her tennis dresses have inspired protests, to which she replied, “As long as I am winning, people shouldn’t care whether my skirt is six inches long or 6 feet long.” Mirza was accused of being a “corrupting influence on [India’s] youth.” Plus, there was an uproar when she was pictured resting her bare feet near an Indian flag, which some claimed was a severe violation of the Prevention of Insults to National Honor Act. Peace activists from Auckland, New Zealand to Malmo, Sweden have protested Israeli actions, and an ’09 Israeli Davis Cup match was played in a virtually vacant Swedish stadium because officials feared violence. Similarly, for security reasons, Pakistan has long been banned from hosting home Davis Cup matches.

Yet tennis has also served as a force for peace. In Israel, thousands of Jews, Arabs, and Druze play in youth programs established by Jewish and Arab leaders. During negotiations to create the Dayton Accords, which settled the Balkan war, the US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke, gained the trust of Franjo Tudjman by playing tennis with the Croatian strongman. Nelson Mandela and Arthur Ashe used tennis in little and large ways to avoid a bloodbath while combating apartheid. Israeli Shahar Peer played with the Muslim Sania Mirza. More recently, Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky wrote a poignant plea for peace in his besieged homeland, and Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Gael Monfils, were in a video made by Alexandr Dolgopolov calling for Ukrainian peace.

Perhaps more than any other sportsman, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi has used tennis to seek peace. In ’02, the Islamic product of the first family of Pakistani tennis joined with Israeli Amir Hadad to play doubles at Wimbledon. Often thoughtful and reflective, he contended that Islam welcomes religions and “teaches us to be tolerant and get along,” and said his pairing with Hadad was proof. But there was a brisk blow-back. Pakistani authorities threatened to sanction Qureshi, and the Sports Minister insisted that “Aisam’s decision to play with an Israeli was not morally correct.”

Undaunted, Qureshi teamed with India’s Rohan Bopanna. Never mind that their two nations had endured 63 years of intractable conflict. Dubbing themselves the Indo-Pak Express, they took on the motto, “Stop War, Start Tennis,” and reasoned, Iif we can get along, well, everyone else can.” Their goal was to have Indian and Pakistani fans cheering together and waving each other’s flags. They worked hard, though futilely, to stage an exhibition at the hotly disputed Indo-Pak border.

Qureshi and Bopanna did reach the 2010 US Open doubles final, where, amazingly, the UN Ambassadors from India and Pakistan sat and cheered together. Qureshi—who says he is always detained for hours when entering the US—told the crowd, “I feel the west and America have a very wrong perception about Muslims and Pakistan. We do have terrorist groups … Like every religion, there are extremists. It doesn’t mean that the whole nation is terrorist or extremist. Pakistan is a very peace-loving country … Everybody wants peace.” Nine years after the 9/11 attacks, just 12 miles from the site, the New York tough crowd gave Qureshi a rousing ovation. The Indo-Pak Express was derailed by Olympic politics, but the No. 8 team in the world are back on track again, seeking both tennis titles and peace. Qureshi recently told IT, “All over the world, people need to love, cherish, and respect each other. I wish the world would change.”

***

IT’s three-part report on war and tennis covered 325 years of a sport’s interaction with an often messy world. We touched on stadiums named after war heroes (Roland Garros), glamorous stars who became mysterious spies, despicable collaborators, and players who were cheered on and then imprisoned by dictators. We saw future greats who died too young, arenas that became dank prisoner-of-war camps, and racket sports used to forge game-changing diplomatic breakthroughs. Plus, we explored how tennis-resistant lands behind the Iron Curtain morphed into factories producing one “‘-ova”-the-top champion after another as the sport became crowded with fusion characters shaped by an inviting blend of cultures. Perhaps no other nation used war as a springboard to tennis greatness more than Serbia.

Yes, said Novak Djokovic, “War is the worst thing in life for humanity. But war made us stronger … We looked at the bright side … Many people come together to find pure strength … That’s why tennis has been a blessing. In a certain way tennis has saved my life … Sports unites people and sends a good message.” No wonder that when the US recently contemplated air strikes during the Syrian Civil War, Djokovic bristled. “I’m totally against any kind of weapon, air strike, or missile attack.” he told IT. “I know because I had this experience.”

So, asked Yannick Noah, “What lessons did we learn from World War I, World War II, from religion’s wars? Did we really learn? What’s wrong with humans, that they don’t learn? It’s really crazy. We go into other’s countries and decide, ‘Okay, this is the way you should live, this is the way you should be’ … Who are we to say that and impose? How can we be so sure we’re right?” We asked Noah if the world is going in the right direction. “Sometimes I think so,” he replied. “Sometimes I don’t. The only thing I know is [that] there’s no other option. It might take time. We’re human beings. We’re very strange sometimes.”

And so we muddle on. The day after the 9/11 attacks, IT noted that we will “mourn the destroyed lives and shattered destinies [of the victims]. But once an unswerving punishment is wrought, we hope that we—a blessed people with unending resources—can muster a more profound wisdom, a deeper compassion, and rise above the lingering anger and the twisted rubble of our fear to rediscover our finest spirit—that noble instinct which could somehow empower us to take a small yet brave step beyond hatred, to a world we can now only imagine: a world of harmony, beauty and justice, a world without war, where playing fields, not killing fields, are the order of the day.”