The Caribbean Connection is a year-long series on tennis' indelible impact on the island nations of the Caribbean. In January, we highlighted Mark Knowles and the Hurricane Dorian relief effort in The Bahamas.
When Roger Federer has an idea, the tennis world is usually powerless to stop it. Which is a good thing—and not just for fans of Federer, or of Laver Cup, the Swiss champion’s latest brainchild.
Ten years ago, Federer watched on television as Haiti, the second-most populous country in the Caribbean and roughly the size of Massachusetts, was struck by a magnitude 7 earthquake. The epicenter was felt just a few miles outside the capital, Port-au-Prince. The only way to properly describe the effects—death toll estimates vary, but it’s agreed that at least 220,000 people were killed—as Haiti’s former president René Préval put it while surveying the carnage, was “unimaginable.”
A world away from the aftershocks, at the Australian Open, Federer found himself compelled to help.
“I spoke to some other top players. I got some connections, you know,” Federer said in Melbourne. “They all said, ‘Yes, we should do something.’”
Ten years ago, tennis hit for Haiti after the island was struck by a devastating earthquake. While money was raised for the moment, benevolence among the sport's stars has endured.
Thus was born the Hit for Haiti, a pre-tournament fundraiser-exhibition that filled Rod Laver Arena for a most worthy cause. It was genuine, and also genius: fans were guaranteed to see some of their favorite players, including Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, in return for a donation at the door. The event, cobbled together without much notice, raised around $200,000 Australian dollars.
It was so successful—and the earthquake was so tragic—that a second Hit for Haiti was held two months later, when the tours converged at Indian Wells.
“We are always thinking about what we can do from a charitable aspect,” says Tommy Haas, tournament director of Indian Wells’ BNP Paribas Open. “I remember the Hit for Haiti, Roger and Rafa and Andre [Agassi] and Pete [Sampras] playing a nice exhibition event. That was quite eventful and raised a lot of money.”
One million dollars, in fact, with a capacity crowd in attendance.
Tennis, of course, can only do so much to assist a recovery effort so staggering. According to the non-profit organization Doctors Without Borders, in its review of the disaster 10 years later, “for a large part of the population, Haiti is no better off than it was before the earthquake, despite the massive amounts of international aid that poured into the country in the months and years that followed.”
Generations must pass before Haiti can stabilize after it was literally shaken to its core. But while the economic impact from the Hits for Haiti was temporary, an emotional impact has persisted. It’s the unmistakable good that tennis, the most international of sports, does with its global reach.
The latest example of this took place just a few months ago, at the Australian Open, with the Rally for Relief. Again, Federer helped lead the way, playing the headline exhibition match with Nick Kyrgios and, with Nadal, donated A$250,000 towards the Australian bushfire relief effort. But Federer was hardly the only notable contributor. Naomi Osaka, whose father was born in Jacmel, Haiti, joined Serena and other top players in raising nearly A$5,000,000—about 25 times the amount raised 10 years earlier.
Ten years after the first Hit for Haiti, fundraising returned to Melbourne in the Rally for Relief, which generated A$5,000,000 for the Australian bushfire relief effort. “It was definitely fun,” said Naomi Osaka, who joined a host of tennis icons in Rod Laver Arena.“I’m sad that we had to get together, like, for that event, but definitely I’m glad that it was for a good cause.”
“The young boys and girls, they can take this as an example,” a Jacmel local told Tennis Channel after Osaka won the 2018 US Open, “and in the future we can have someone like Naomi representing this country.”Maria Sharapova made a donation of $25,000, and asked Novak Djokovic to match it—which he of course did. Karolina Pliskova was one of dozens of players who pledged donations for every ace they hit; Simona Halep said she would donate each time she gave her coach a hard time.
In Auckland, Serena donated her entire winner’s check; Ash Barty did the same with her earnings from Brisbane. John Isner promised 25 percent of his total prize purse from the Australian Open, while Alexander Zverev said he’d give away the entire A$4,000,000 champion’s prize, if he won the tournament.
“Of course, if I win the $4 million, it’s a lot of money for me,” said Zverev, who would fall in the semifinals but still donate $50,000. “I’m not Roger, I’m not LeBron James, something like that. This is still big.
“But at the same time I know that there’s people right now in this beautiful country, that lost their homes and actually they need the money … there’s much better use for those people with that money than I have right now.”
Zverev may not be Roger, but he and many others have followed Federer’s lead—one that began with an idea about Haiti.