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Saturday, August 11, 2007
Professional Tennis, Cheering, and Love of Country

A question that came to mind while watching the Rogers Cup semi-final between Rafael Nadal (of Spain) and Novak Djokovic (of Serbia), won by Djokovic for the right to lose in tomorrow's Finals to Roger Federer (of Switzerland):

When did professional tennis become a forum for fan expression of patriotism and love of country in rooting for particular players? Or, put a different way, when did professional tennis players begin playing "for country," becoming so identified with their countries of origin that fans who root for that player do so as a form of cheering for ountry, often by specifically invoking aspects of love of country in cheering. This was illustrated in this semi-final, where there were competing Serbian and Spanish flags hanging from the grandstand walls. Federer's fans turn out in t-shirts with the Swiss national symbol (red cross on white field).

Has it always been this way? Tennis players always have been identified with their home countries--Bjorn Borg was Swedish; Steffi Graf was German; Margaret Court was Australian; John McEnroe used to wear a "USA" warm-up jacket onto the court. And the media always made a big deal of it--Bud Collins used to refer to Graf as "Fraulein Forehand"). But it seems as if the player/country connection is more explicit from the player's standpoint and the fans have picked up on it in their rooting. Djokovic's win tonight becomes a source of Serbian pride. But tournament tennis is not like the Olympics or the World Cup or the Davis Cup, where one represents one plays on a "national" team, thereby explicitly representing or playing for one's country. But fans root for particular players as if they were.

Maybe this is just a product of the globalization of sports, something hardly limited to tennis. Fans always have and will latch on to players from "their" lands or who share their backgrounds and take personal pride in that player's success (interesting comments on this phenomenon here). And the increasing globalization of professional sports, with more athletes from more places on the scene, means there are more players from "my homeland" for whom I can root. It then is only a small step to waving Swiss flags and singing the Swiss national anthem after Federer wins.


It probably isn't just globalization and shared backgrounds. I figure the media appearances of many athletes today, their so smooth interviews, lack of real opinions and impeccable public lives make it difficult to really root for a given athlete, especially so in Tennis after so many "personality-players".
What's left then to root for is sympathy in the athletes looks - or nationality.

Anonymous ethone -- 8/12/2007 7:51 AM  

This trend doesn't bode well for tennis's future popularity in America, especially WRT the men's game, as so many of the top players are foreigners.

Anonymous Peter -- 8/12/2007 12:42 PM  

I grew up in Europe, and from my experience most individual sports have been "love of country" dominated overthere. Sports like tennis and golf and even F1 racing have been like that for as long as I can remember. I think the new trend is simply the American fans catching up to that mentality. One reason for this is probably that the US has always had many contenders. For those of us that grew up on the otherside of the puddle, we were used to our one standout like Björn Borg during the 70's and 80's, and Thomas Enquist during the 80's and 90's. I think thats where the country mentality comes in, one of "ours" against the rest.

Blogger Jimmy H -- 8/12/2007 7:37 PM  

There's been a little bit of this for a long time, especially when it comes to players from non-tennis-dominating countries (Andres Gomez from Ecuador, Guga Kuerten from Brazil, etc.). And some of what you're seeing in Djokovic's fans may be a special artifact of Serbian nationalism—which, of course, has been a special case, in a wide number of areas, for quite awhile. But nationalistic rooting is such a small part of tennis fandom, even now, that I think this is really just a non-issue. It's an individual sport, and those individuals come to be beloved (or not) based on personality traits and the like.

Blogger Jay -- 8/18/2007 12:54 PM  

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