In a time of borders, tennis keeps crossing them

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Tennis, as much as any other sport, reflects a world in motion. (AP)

LONDON—On Thursday afternoon, a man stood on Henman Hill, beer in hand, and shouted his support for his countrywoman, Johanna Konta. He said he was happy to have a chance to root for a British player, and that he liked Konta because she was a “real battler.” What he didn’t realize was that her parents are Hungarian, she was born in Australia and lived there until she was 14, she has only been a citizen of Great Britain since 2012, and that she did her most important training in Spain.

“Really? I didn’t know that,” he said after hearing her story from a reporter.

This account comes from an article in Friday’s Times (of London) by Alyson Rudd, entitled “Centre Court’s Newest Star Fails to Win Hearts.” Rudd’s point isn’t that Konta was too dull to spark the crowd, or that, as a child of immigrants, she wasn’t British enough for a post-Brexit audience.

“Henman Hill was hardly a viper’s nest seething with Konta’s credentials,” Rudd writes. She goes on to quote a group of students on the subject:

“Mo Farah is British, so she can be,” one of the kids says. “We live in such a multicultural society so you can’t deny someone who wants to call themselves British.”

Even the pro-Brexit Sun couldn’t find anything threatening in Konta, who has spent the fortnight proclaiming her love of baking, the Spice Girls and U2.

“VENUS PROVES TOO STRONG FOR OUR JO” was the paper’s headline the day after she lost to Venus Williams.

Tennis, a sport of individuals who fly from one country to another virtually every week, has a way of breaking down national barriers and, especially since the fall of the Iron Curtain, making the playing field a little flatter. The 16 singles quarterfinalists at Wimbledon this year hailed from 13 different countries: Romania, Great Britain, Latvia, the U.S., Slovakia, Russia, Spain, Luxembourg, Croatia, Canada, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Serbia.

Tennis, as much as any other sport, reflects a world in motion. As Konta shows, even players who don’t necessarily look like they come from somewhere else can come from somewhere else. In pursuit of training, players routinely cross borders at a young age, and the tours are a sort of traveling international circus. The de facto ringleader of that circus at the moment, Roger Federer, is Swiss, but his mother grew up in South Africa. He has dual citizenship there, and he speaks English, French, German and Swiss German.

Of course, Konta’s story isn’t proof that the world is perfectly level, or that it swirls in all directions. Her parents moved from Hungary to Australia, not the other way around, the same way Milos Raonic’s parents moved from Montenegro to Canada. And it would be nice to say that within the tennis world, all walls came tumbling down and everyone mixed with everyone else with no thought of where they were from. But in player lounges and press rooms, people gravitate toward their countrymen and countrywomen. Whether it’s language or sensibility, the cultural barriers don’t disappear.

To me, though, this milieu offers a clarifying and refreshing blend of both worlds. In the U.S. these days, it can be hard to know if the concept of being an “American” still exists; we’re more likely now to see ourselves as liberals or conservatives, red-staters or blue-staters, first. But there’s nothing like going abroad to let you know that your country really is part of who you are. I never feel more American than when I’m sitting, the way I have been over this fortnight, in a row that includes reporters from Italy, Spain, Germany and the UK.

What’s more important, though, is that the tennis world also lets you know that your way of looking at the world isn’t the only way of looking at the world. You can see and hear a different language and accent every few yards in the media room or the player lounge. One of my favorite experiences at Wimbledon was running around the grounds on Manic Monday one year trying to see a few games of all 16 matches. I’ve forgotten everything about the matches; what I remember is meeting a journalist I knew from a different country—from Italy, from China, from Spain, from Great Britain, from the Czech Republic, from the U.S.—at virtually every court. It was the best day in tennis for that reason alone.

Tennis is a community of its own, insular and exclusive like many communities, but also made up of members from virtually everywhere. And that’s really why, as Alyson Rudd writes in The Times, Konta failed to fully stir up the passions of the British tennis fans on Henman Hill this year: They didn’t know her very well.

“She’s only really become big in the last couple of weeks,” a fan named Rebecca says. But there’s hope for Jo. “She seems nice, someone you would want to support. She’s suddenly the poster girl for Britain.”

As Rudd writes, “When Heather Watson faced Victoria Azarenka in the third round, Centre Court was a much more passionate and warm place. Watson is part of British tennis, she has a connection with the spectators ... They at least knew her history, her quirks and foibles, and ability to float and sink.”

Watson grew up on the island of Guernsey, and her mother, Michelle, is from Papua New Guinea, not the middle of England. But the fans know her, and that’s enough to make her part of the British tennis family.

It takes time with tennis fans. “The best bit of the day,” a woman named Susan told Rudd, “was seeing Virginia Wade.” Wade, of course, is “Our Ginny,” the last Wimbledon women’s winner from Great Britain. The sight of her taking the trophy from the Queen in 1977 is part of the country’s collective sporting memory. But Wade’s mother was born in South Africa, and Wade lived there with her parents—and learned to play tennis there—until she was 15. Like so many tennis players, she’s from more than one place, but she’ll forever represent the successes of English tennis. Give her a few years, a few heartbreaks and hopefully a few triumphs, and Konta—Hungarian born, Australian raised, Spanish trained—will be part of the family, too.


—GRAND SLAM WEEK: Watch Wimbledon Primetime on Tennis Channel, and catch up on the other 2017 Grand Slams on Tennis Channel Plus
—Watch encores from the 2017 French Open and Australian Open on Tennis Channel Plus, including matches like the AO Final showdown between Serena & Venus Williams

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