Tennis is a simple game. Get the ball over the net, don’t double fault. That’s about it – just a sport – not!
Tennis is not only an international sport played by men and women age five to 95. It brings out rich psychological factors and, whether you like it or not, has plenty of politics – left, right and center.
Madman Adolf Hitler telephoned Gottfried von Cramm at Wimbledon to wish him well in a big match – and later sent him to a prison camp. As for apartheid: Arthur Ashe fought to get rid of it and the ITF banned South Africa from Davis Cup play. American Tony Trabert swung at anti-apartheid protestors at a Davis Cup tie. John McEnroe turned down huge money to play in South Africa, and after South African Wayne Ferreira won Olympic silver in 1992, he said, “This medal stands for the political change on the land and the courage to fight for it.”
All the while, Ashe was encouraged to run for the Senate; and there has been talk of Djokovic some day becoming the President of Serbia. Super agent Donald Dell was an important aide in Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign. “Mother Freedom,” Billie Jean King, changed the landscape of gender politics. Israeli Sharar Peer fought anti-Semitism from Poland to Dubai. Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi created the Indo-Pak Express to try and reduce the tensions between his native Pakistan and neighboring India. Sergiy Stakhovsky spoke out poignantly during the Ukrainian civil war. Andy Murray is a gutsy feminist. Plus, a long series of women not named Billie – Alice Marble, Althea Gibson, Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova, Venus and Serena – have all taken political initiatives.
And then there’s tennis sage Chris Lewis, the ’83 Wimbledon finalist, who said players should not accept funding from federations because they are like governments that “acquire money the same way as bank robbers — by coercion.” He said he stayed at home to avoid “whining, success-hating, envy-motivated socialist mediocrities.”
In his last press conference, the suddenly controversial American Tennys Sandgren said he used his anonymity against his foes – they didn’t know how he played. And, similarly, his anonymity also meant that the world didn’t know about his views – until the respected British journalist Simon Briggs asked him in a tense press conference to explain why he followed and retweeted an assortment of right-wing and alt-right people, who some contended had disturbing views, including hate messages.
Tennys countered that it was crazy that a person be defined by who he follows or retweets or what news channels he watches. He added that he likes to get a range of information and that he’s not alt-right, but rather a Christian. Still, he said he did find the views of the alt-right interesting.
The press room exchange created a firestorm. While it went ignored by some mainstream media outlets from Melbourne to the US, social media raged. Some asked why the media would even ask an athlete about his private views – this is sports, not politics – talk about forehands. Others claimed the media should press him more, even though the issue essentially had come up out of nowhere.
Tennys’ critics pointed to supportive exchanges with Nicholas Fuentes, a controversial activist who was at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. They also noted that in an exchange with James Blake, Tennys contended that there was no systemic racism in America because an African-American was twice elected President. Sandgren, at least for a while, endorsed “Pizzagate,” a widely debunked child-sex-abuse conspiracy theory relating to Hillary Clinton. One of his tweets at the very least “body-shamed” Serena, saying she was “disgusting.”
Sandgren was also highly critical of transgender bathrooms. He sent out a disturbing anti-Muslim message about the Orlando mass murder and once tweeted from Australia: “Stumbled into a gay club last night… my eyes are still bleeding #nooneshouldseethat.”
Still, Sandgren defended himself against people who claimed he was an extremist. “As a firm Christian, I don’t support things like that, no. I support Christ and following him,” he said.
He opened up to Christopher Clarey of the New York Times, saying, “We are definitely in an outrage culture where free speech doesn’t seem to be as free as it used to be. There are all kinds of restrictions people want to place on that…If you already think you are correct and there’s nothing else you can learn in life, then I think you are in trouble,” he said. “I like to consume information. I like to learn. Would I consider myself alt-right?…No, I don’t. Not even a little bit…I’m a pretty devout Christian, and I treat my walk with Christ very seriously…in a way that I’m constantly looking at the things I do and how that affects me existentially. I want to hear your side. I want to hear everybody’s side, and I want to learn, because I’m 26. Do I think I know everything about life? No.”
Sandgren noted that now that he is under so much scrutiny, he says that he shouldn’t “censor myself from all things just to be a white rice of a personality so that everybody thinks I’m amazing. If everybody thinks you’re amazing, you probably are doing something wrong.”
Some argued that it was wrong that he cleansed his Twitter account. After the controversy, all of Tennys’ tweets going back nearly 19 months were suddenly deleted. His critics also argued that if he were truly open to all ideas he would have a range of outlets on his Twitter, not just right-wing or extremist ones.
Anyway, what once was a simple feel-good sports story – appealing No. 97 player in the world shocks two top 10 players to become the first American to reach the Aussie Open quarters since Andy Roddick – has morphed into a nuanced and troubling political and ethical story – #Heavy.
Tomorrow we shall see if media handlers allow Sandgren to be asked questions on his views. Will he explain his thoughts in any greater depth? Will he tell us why he scrubbed his Twitter account? And, by the way (there is a tennis tournament going on here), will he extend his magical run and defeat Korea’s Hyeon Chung to reach the semis?