Friday, June 26, 2009

It's always about team sports--even when it isn't

The great Muriel Spark wrote one of my favorite lines in all of literature: "Cleopatra knew nothing of the team spirit...."

One of the things I like best about professional tennis is that it is not a team sport. I have nothing against team sports--they just don't hold my interest the way individual competition does. I'm jut not a "team" kind of person the way other people are, though I totally understand how people can develop strong loyalties to teams, and I respect that loyalty. I have, on occasion, even enjoyed watching team sports myself, but never with the enthusiasm I have for watching someone struggle alone on a tennis court.

But in the U.S.--perhaps in other places, but I cannot speak for other countries--just about every sport somehow gets turned into a team sport. ESPN, as I and several of my readers have complained, is so U.S.-centric that it is sometimes difficult for us to find a television match that does not involve Americans. The most boring match imaginable can be televised, and a thriller can be played at the same time, but if the boring match has an American in it, we're stuck with watching it.

Part of that U.S.-centric syndrome, as I have written about on several occasions, is the U.S. televisin commentators' unwillingness to perform the basic courtesy (and job description item) of correctly pronouncing the names of non-Americans. (I recall a woman looking at the photos of tennis players in my office. She asked me who they were, and when I told her, she said "Well, you certainly know how to pronounce their names," as if I had just performed neurosurgery with a penknife.)

I recently heard from a man who used to be a fan but gave up following the ATP because the golden age of American tennis ended several years ago. I wanted to ask him "But what about Roger Federer? What about Rafa? What about Safin and Hewitt?"

A year or so ago, I listened to a woman go on and on about that fact that she cheers for American players only. When I suggested that some of us were fans of non-Americans, too, she would have none of it. Instead she told me what a die-hard fan she was of Chris Everett. Right. No need to even know what her name is--just know that she is American. (I was especially put out by this because I am a long-time fan of Evert's.) Some of you may recall that during the Family Circle Cup, I blogged about some women who wondered how I was related to the Bartoli family because I happened to be cheering for Marion while she was competing against an American player.

On some blog or other this past week, I saw a comment someone made about the British players who have been trying so hard to advance in their sport. The commenter said she supports them because she wants more English-speaking players to win. Let's see...just about every player in the top 50--maybe the top 100--speaks English. I wondered whether the commenter was bi- or multilingual; my instinct told me she wasn't.

Aside from the obvious and ridiculous fact that dozens of players are English-speaking, there is the darker reality of what this woman really meant: Too many non-Anglo Eureopean and Asian players have "invaded" the sport. I also read a comment somewhere else about the "Asian robots" who have "taken over" the LPGA (and of course, the comments included an ethnic attack on Lorena Ochoa).

Such chauvinism is part of the reason that tennis isn't as popular in the U.S. as it might be. As a person who has never been into "rah-rah country" (or "rah-rah" anything), it is hard for me to understand this attitude.

My understanding is that a twist on this problem exists in Great Britain. I have heard from both fans and players that the British ignore tennis the other fifty weeks of the year to the same degree that they go slightly nuts over it during Wimbledon. So if a British player doesn't do something spectacular at the All England Club's showcase, s/he is a failure.

The world of sports is, of course, merely a microcosm of the rest of life's business: It is filled with racism, ethnicism, sexism, misogyny, gay-hating, and chauvinism. Sticking with the topic of tennis, however, it's a shame that so many Americans cannot see their way to enjoying the likes of Jelena Jankovic, Li Na, Flavia Pennetta, or Daniela Hantuchova (who speaks English--and probably two or three more languages than they do).


Nicole said...

I too am a huge fan of tennis because its an indivdual sport, but the best thing about tennis is that it is truly international. I believe Americans suffer from Nationalism. When u really dissect the American psyche,it really is sad. If u can't like Raja or Rafa, I mean come on.

Speaking english is just a code phrase. Americans have problems with people with accents. My bestfriend's mom is Jamaican and I have many African friends and co-workers and they feel that Americans have a problem with accents.

joni said...

well said!

to see sport only belonging to one race/culture is sad. and like you said, this doesnt just exist in tennis and in america/GB alone. asian cultures also see badminton and table tennis their own sports and are reluctant to share coaching experience with the 'foreigners'.

what an irony it is while sports world is said to be an area that races break boundaries and just focus on the competition itself.

U said...

great article! thumbsup

same story in every country. home player match is a must on tv. cheering for home players is a must. tv commentators cheering for home player is necessary.(!)
cheering for non-home player is not "you are family?", it's "you are traitor!!!". cheering for gay people rights is "you are gay too!!!!"
don't know what to say. diane said everything.

Diane said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments.

U, if you cheer against a home team in the U.S., you're a traitor, too. But tennis isn't important enough to get crazy over. After all, it isn't violent. And women play it.

Unknown said...

"Part of that U.S.-centric syndrome, as I have written about on several occasions, is the U.S. televisin commentators' unwillingness to perform the basic courtesy (and job description item) of correctly pronouncing the names of non-Americans."

Interesting point. This is a hot topic for me, but sometimes I wonder whether some have good intentions and just don't know the proper pronunciation and/or don't know where to find it out.

It can be discouraging to have your name mispronounced (I know first hand). However, it is also frustrating to say names that you aren't sure how to pronounce.

I am really trying to help bridge that gap. I run a website called where people can listen to names pronounced by native speakers. I don't have many tennis players on there yet, but I think they would be a great addition.