When I get down about the state of the world, I watch professional tennis. I feel that in no other sport, no other entertainment or escapism, exists such an optimistic force for good — a realization of humanity working harmoniously across nationalities, politics and religion.
There’s nothing else I can think of like it that’s permanently put in place week upon week as a true meritocracy across an international stage.
A wiser person than myself said that travel broadens the mind.
For 11 months each year, from Australia to India, Brazil to Germany — across 200-plus countries — male and female professional tennis athletes tour the world, competing for points, money and recognition. In doing so, cultures are explored, new languages are learned and noble causes are supported.
No other single entity raised more money to help fight the recent Australian wildfires than tennis players and fans. As one of the largest tournaments of the calendar year — the Australian Open — was played through the haze of smoke in Melbourne, the plight of Australia’s Outback wildlife was never out of the spotlight. According to the tournament’s website, ausopen.com, the one-night charity event called Rally For Relief alone raised more than $3.5 million.
In the past, events such as the 2010 Hit For Haiti — which supported charities benefiting Haitians after earthquakes killed more than 100,000 people — or the 2005 Hit For Humanity — following the December 2004 tsunami that killed more than 250,000 people in 14 countries — have reminded me that there is still optimism and good in a world that a lot of the time seems to be consumed by an almost conformist push toward pessimism.
Beyond being a great example of charity, tennis is also a great equalizer — as true a form of meritocracy as any other example I can think of.
Players win matches, they move up the rankings — they lose, and correspondingly move down the rankings.
Hard work and a desire to compete above all else are the biggest filters between the winners and losers in tennis.
However, as in most aspects of life, one should never discount a little luck here and there, as well — a ball bouncing off a net cord can go either way.
I’ve heard tennis often criticized as a rich kid’s sport, but then how can two, poor sisters from South-Central Los Angeles rise to the highest echelons of the sport? How does a skinny, middle-class boy from Basel, Switzerland, become arguably the greatest athlete and one of the most famous names in the world?
Venus and Serena Williams, and Roger Federer are inspirational heroes to millions of people all over the world. They started out just like you and me.
If you want to see the meritocracy of tennis on full display, watch a qualifiers tournament. The week before a major event like New York’s U.S. Open, the fight is on for a few spots in the main draws of what is arguably the world’s largest tennis tournament. Qualifiers, as they’re known, have gone on to survive deep into the big stage that is televised tennis — the desire of a lower-ranked player to simply keep winning has pushed the biggest names out of tournaments.
Tennis is also diplomacy in action. In regions of the world torn apart by nationalistic differences, partnerships are forged that attempt to bridge these gaps.
For some years, Pakistan’s Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and his Indian doubles partner Rohan Bopanna made peace seem possible between two of the biggest nuclear-armed rivals.
These two tennis players may not change the world, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Avoiding conflict starts with dialogue. Tennis partnerships like Qureshi and Bopanna are a great ice breaker.
As a force for good, tennis extends into the fight against hate speech, as well.
Going back to recent events in Australia again, two of tennis’ most famous names — Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe — made headlines when they led the call to change the namesake of one of the large stadiums at the Australian Open tournament site.
“When airports, buildings, streets or stadiums are named after particular people, it is done, or at least should be done, to honor exceptional human beings, our heroes,” Navratilova said.
Without going into the specific details of the uproar here, their argument can be summed up as being that just because someone was a great tennis player doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a great role model.
That’s one of the reasons people such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Ana Ivanovic have become bigger than the sport that made them famous in the first place. They are involved in charities and are working to better humanity.
There’s a great line in the film Ronin: “Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution, or you’re just part of the landscape.”
Many professional tennis players are using their wealth and fame to be part of the solution.
They are an example to all of us who want peace and prosperity for everyone on this planet we all share — and they give me hope that meaning can triumph over nihilism.