If you’ve followed tennis with any degree of regularity over the last 10 years, you understood exactly what you were going to see last weekend when France took the court for the Davis Cup final.
You knew it had been 16 years since the country had won the title. And you knew the current Musketeer generation of Frenchmen—led by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon and Julien Benneteau—had been expected to bring home multiple Cups by now, just as their namesakes from the 1920s had.
You were probably also aware of the checkered histories of each player. You knew that Gasquet appeared on the cover of a tennis magazine at age 9, and that he has spent the last 20 years trying, and mostly not succeeding, to live up to that future-of-French-tennis billing. You remembered the sad sight of Tsonga hiding underneath a towel at Roland Garros a few years ago after a particularly crushing defeat in front of the heartbroken home fans. You might also, like those home fans, refer to Tsonga simply as “Jo”—mostly when you yell, “No, no, no, not again, Jo!” at your TV.
In short, you understood what it would mean to France’s long-suffering players and fans if they could end their Davis Cup drought. If you were like me, you were rooting for them to ignore their destiny as underachievers and make it happen.
It didn’t require you to be from France to know the team’s history, or to feel some joy in its success. As an American, I had been pleased to see the U.S. team end its own Fed Cup drought a few weeks earlier. But I was just as engaged by the Davis Cup final, despite the fact that the U.S. had been eliminated months earlier. Ultimately I wanted the French to win, but I was also thrilled to see David Goffin, who won both of his matches for Belgium in straight sets, put an exclamation point on his breakout season.
The opportunity to root globally, to identify with people from other nations, is one of tennis’s underrated strengths. Fans of the sport may pull for players from their own country, but it’s not expected of them. The game is played by individuals who represent themselves, rather than teams that represent cities; this leaves us free to cheer for whomever we happen to like, wherever they happen to be from—Federer nation, to cite the most obvious example, stretches to every corner of the world. Last weekend, a win for France meant something to me not because I’m a fan of French tennis specifically, but because I’m a fan of tennis generally.
The Davis Cup final was played over the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. Thinking back over the 2017 season, it seemed like an opportune moment to be thankful for the global nature of tennis. Politically, from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump to separatist movements and Far Right rallies in Europe and beyond, the last 18 months have been marked by a nationalist surge. Amidst that retrenchment, though, tennis provided a much-needed antidote by sticking to its worldly ways.
The shot of 2017 was undoubtedly the screaming backhand winner that Jelena Ostanpenko belted past Simona Halep to win the French Open. In Paris, Ostapenko was like a comet that had landed on the tennis world. She was unseeded, 20 years old, and had never won a tournament before. She was also the first player from Latvia to hoist a Grand Slam trophy.
But in another sense, Ostapenko was doing exactly what so many other players have done before her: Expanding tennis’ borders. Over the last 20 years, the sport that was once dominated by the U.S. and Australia has seen a Russian revolution, a Spanish Armada, and a Balkan bonanza as well as pioneering players from Poland, Japan, China, Romania, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Belarus and Canada. Now Ostapenko has brought Latvia, a nation with a population of less than two million, into the league of Grand Slam champion nations.
A month after Ostapenko’s crash landing in Paris, Johanna Konta thrilled Great Britain when she became the first woman from the country to reach the Wimbledon semifinals in three decades. The nation united around its new star: Mick Jagger and Van Morrison offered congratulations, the tabloids plastered her across their front pages, and Rupert Murdoch’s caustic Sun took to calling her “Our Jo.” Had this staunchly pro-Brexit paper forgotten that Konta’s parents are Hungarian, that she was born in Australia and lived there until she was 14, that she has done much of her training in Spain and that she only became a British citizen in 2012? None of that seemed to matter to the fans at Wimbledon. They were just as happy to cheer for Our Jo as they were for their old favorite Heather Watson—whose mother, Michelle, is from Papa New Guinea.
Two months after Konta delighted the home folks in England, Sloane Stephens did the same at the US Open. Her win was the first by a U.S. woman other than Venus or Serena Williams at a major since Jennifer Capriati in 2002. In that sense, Stephens’ victory didn’t just make her the successor to a tradition of American women’s champions; it made her the successor to the tradition of African-American women’s champions that was started by the Williams sisters. In 1997, a 17-year-old Venus had been a pioneer when she reached the final of the Open. Early on, fans at Flushing Meadows were slow to embrace Venus and her family. Twenty years later, those same fans embraced Sloane with deafening cheers as she walked through the door that Venus had opened.
In November, watching France’s Davis Cup team fall into a heap as they celebrated their win, I thought about Ostapenko, Konta and Stephens, and their barrier-erasing wins of 2017. Over the season’s final weekend, I felt another barrier being erased: I had the same sense of identification with the French and Belgian players that I do with any player from the States. And I was as happy for Tsonga and Gasquet as I would have been if they played for the U.S.—no one is foreign in tennis. This year, even as the world tried to build new walls and carve out new borders, tennis kept crossing them.