Bombs fell. Hostages were taken. Children died. The brutality shocked us. Now a fierce counterattack surges. Sports is a haven – we need it to escape. Still, there are memories to recall, moments to remember and things to be said.
In September, an African-American teenager called on a Jew to improve her game. Then Coco Gauff, with the help of her coach, Brad Gilbert, went on to score one of the most momentous, feel-good wins in memory. She won the US Open.
This was hardly the first time a Jew had helped an emerging African-American tennis star. In 1956, Britain’s Angela Buxton stepped up and played doubles with the African-American Althea Gibson.
The duo won both the French nationals and Wimbledon. Their groundbreaking alliance was a shock. After all, Blacks had long been banned from playing elite tennis tournaments.
But, then again, Jews and Blacks had long been blackballed from joining elite tennis clubs. Anti-semitism was rampant. That’s why a handful of Hollywood luminaries founded the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. These days, Jews head many clubs. They also have led the USTA and been brilliant coaches, players and commentators.
Still, tennis historians remind us that, in 1937, Adolf Hitler called Wimbledon to encourage his man, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, just before his Davis Cup match against the American Don Budge. Worse yet, during World War II, Germany bombed Wimbledon and Roland Garros was used as a detention camp.
On a far more positive note, in 2002 the Pakistani Muslim Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and the Israeli Amir Hadad courageously played doubles together at Wimbledon and reached the third round.
In 2009, Venus Williams protested emphatically when Dubai authorities banned Shahar Peer from playing. The Israeli soon became the first Jew to compete in a Middle Eastern WTA tournament. Later, Peer would lead the annual Remembrance Day march at Poland’s Auschwitz concentration camp.
More recently, Muslim women’s tennis pros have been creating headlines. Indian Sania Mirza became the first Muslim woman to win a major (she earned a total of six Slam doubles crowns), and Tunisian Ons Jabeur became the first Arab woman to win a WTA singles title in 2021. Later she made the US Open final and the Wimbledon final twice.
Jabeur, who recently won the Nongpoh tourney in China, is a popular figure who was dubbed “the Minister of Happiness.” But, of late, the Muslim star has been far from happy.
Like much of the world, she was shocked by the brutal, devastating violence in the Middle East that has already taken over 4,000 victims, including many children. Jabeur called for peace, condemned the violence in Israel and asserted on Facebook that the context and history behind the conflict mattered.
“What Palestinians have been going through during the last 75 years is indescribable,” she asserted. “What innocent civilians are going through is indescribable; no matter what their religion is, or what their origin is, violence will never bring peace. I cannot stand with violence but I also cannot stand with people having their lands taken…Peace is all we care about. Peace is what everyone needs and deserves. Stop the violence and #FreePalestine.
“I one hundred percent feel very sorry for the Palestinian people and I feel sorry for the children that are dying every day for 74 years.”
Not surprisingly, the Israel Tennis Association promptly issued a vehement statement accusing Jabeur of supporting and inciting a “murderous terrorist organization.” The group filed a formal complaint to the WTA against the world No. 7 player and also worked to evacuate players, coaches and officials who had gathered for the Tel Aviv Open before it was canceled due to the Hamas attack.
Jabeur’s controversial comments weren’t the first time that a Middle Eastern pro has reflected on the spiral of violence in the region. Twenty-one years ago, while playing doubles with Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi at Wimbledon, Israeli Amir Hadad shared his hopes for peace. In 2002 he poignantly told Inside Tennis, “It’s always sad to see people getting killed for nothing. Maybe it will be good in the future. I’m not the only one in the world who wants to see this end. Hopefully, in a few years, they’re going to find solutions that are good for everyone. If we can help to change some things, we’re going to do it…But we don’t think we can.”
And now, amidst all the agonizing pain, death and sorrow, we again know that tragically, the unending madness only deepens.