A Lightning Rod, Well Grounded

by: Peter Bodo | August 11, 2010

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by Pete Bodo

Howdy, everyone. I wasn't able to focus on the news out of the Rogers Cup in Toronto yesterday, because I had date to interview and hit some balls with one of the most controversial political pundits in the nation, Sean Hannity. You may know his eponymous show on Fox News Channel, but long before he became a lightning rod on television, he was a pioneer in that medium that has helped shape and transform the national political landscape, talk radio.

Some of my own friends, who as a group span the entire political and socio-economic spectrum, were dismayed to learn that I would hobnob with Hannity, but that's alright—everyone has a right to be as open—or closed—minded as he chooses. I knew that Hannity is a sports nut and tennis player. In fact, he's so into tennis that during the U.S. Open (he has box seats on Arthur Ashe Stadium) he gets frequent updates from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center while he's doing his broadcast.

Then, if anything worthwhile is going on (it turns out that almost anything tennis-related gets Hannity fired up) he'll often make a mad dash out to the NTC and settle into his seat at 10:30 P.M. "I love those nights when they go on until midnight, or one in the morning," he told me. "The energy at those matches is fantastic."

I drove out to Hannity's home on Long Island Sound from Manhattan with photographer David Kenas. I couldn't help notice the security cameras discreetly placed at strategic locations on Hannity's handsome, cedar-shingled home, which are a cost of doing business when you're a well-known, dedicated political partisan in these often fractious and bitter times. A giant Bernese mountain dog pup tumbled out of the front door, followed shortly by Hannity himself, dressed in a well-worn Fila shirt, dark shorts, sunglasses and a FNC trucker cap.

I noticed that Kenas' face turned a paler shade when I introduced him to Hannity.

"The pictures," David mumbled.

"Where are the pictures?" Sean said. "We never got them."

"You won't believe this..." As David spoke, I could see him mentally putting two and two together.

It turns out that Sean had been one of the parents who engaged David to shoot photos of his son at a recent high-level junior event. Kenas, having no great interest in politics and its attendant punditry, had not recognized Hannity, either by face or name. Somehow, David had been unable to locate one set of pictures from among the many he shot that day. He'd spent hours reviewing his photo-memory cards and hard drives, to no avail. That kind of thing never happened to him before; it drove him nuts. Mortified, and he did his best to explain and apologize. 

Sean clapped him on the back. "Don't worry about it," he said. "We've got tons of pictures of the kids playing tennis. Really. It's no big deal."

That was a pleasant surprise, and anyone who's had to deal with celebrities will know exactly what I mean. And it set the tone for the morning we spent together, talking and hitting tennis balls. As a player, Sean is, well, a work in progress. He has a tight, zippy forehand. His two-handed backhand is subject to attack (aren't they all, though, at the rec level?).  His natural serve (Sean was a baseball pitcher in his youth) is excellent, but he has a tender rotator cuff. All in all, Hannity could strike fear into numerous hearts on the Pro-Celebrity circuit, although I have a hard time getting my mind around the idea of the doubles team, Hannity and Baldwin. How about the mixed doubles squad of Hannity and Streisand?

Sean doesn't play much Pro-Am tennis. He doesn't even do many interviews. I suppose that even he, a pugnacious guy whose zest for debate, gets tired of defending his strong views or the "gotcha" brand of journalism that is now so fashionable. Tennis is a family hobby for the Hannitys. Just days before we met, he'd spent the better part of a long weekend in the car with his family, driving to and from a distant junior tennis tournament.

I can't give away the store here. But I'll link to the story I write in TENNIS Magazine at the appropriate time. But I can say that Sean is as level-headed and well-intentioned as any tennis parent I've known. He'd be over the moon if either of his two children (a boy and a girl) becomes good enough to play college tennis. He's more concerned with overdoing it as a parent than in his kids falling behind to some race to excellence. He likes tennis because of the values it teaches and promotes.

Before our interview, I wondered if his 24/7 preoccupation with politics and what we broadly call the "culture wars" would taint the conversation. Would this right-wing firebrand politicize the conversation, or try to draw parallels between our political affairs and tennis, and his experience as tennis parent with a son who's got a good sectional ranking (in the USTA Eastern division)? He did nothing of the kind, even when I left open the door to it (I am, after all, a journalist). When this guy talks tennis, kids and parenting, he speaks in the voice of a...father. A tennis nut. A sports guy trying to do the right thing for his talented kids.

As Sean told me, just as David and I were leaving, "I believe as a religious tenant that God gave everyone a talent, and our job is to find what that talent is, and to put it to best use. So if I were to push too hard with tennis, try to make my kids be great tennis players instead of letting them find out how good they are, or how good they want to be, I'd be interfering with that process. I'd be going against that basic belief."

Look for a more detailed profile of Sean Hannity in an upcoming issue of TENNIS Magazine. I promise fire, if not fireworks of the kind often associated with his name.

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