Even if tennis is less-politicised than other sports, it still can find itself caught up in all sorts of political wranglings. From apartheid, red shirts, the Russian parliament and flares to the activism of Arthur Ashe; we present a collection of 10 of the most memorable moments where tennis and politics collided…
1/ Marat Safin, MP.
Model, party-boy, quadrilingual, tennis player, temperamental – “I broke 1055 rackets in ten years”
– and now, politician: In December 2011, Marat Safin was elected to the Russian Duma as a candidate for United Russia, the ruling party of President Vladimir Putin. “In 20 years, he will be the President of Russia”
, judged his friend Pete Sampras. “I’ve thought for a long time about going into politics… It’s a new life, a new way of thinking, of acting, far removed from tennis, or sport in general”
says the 33-year-old former world number one for his part. “I’m the best-looking man in the Duma, but that’s only ‘cause the others are all over 60.”
2/ Goran Ivanisevic refuses the call-up
It’s the second round at the 1991 U.S. Open. After a little more than an hour’s play Goran Ivanisevic disposes of his fellow Yugoslav, Goran Prpic, in straight sets. However, it’s not time for him to relax and congratulate himself on a job well done. Back in Split, where all his family lives, the Yugoslav army has started bombarding the civil population in what will become the Croatian War of Independence. Goran announces that he has no intention of taking up arms: “This is my gun, my racquet…It is hard to kill, to fight someone when six months ago you were a friend. It's very stupid.”
What he does do, though, remains a seminal date in the history of Croat sport. As a protest against the massacres in his country, he refuses to represent Yugoslavia at their BNP Paribas Davis Cup semi-final against France. “Why should I play for a nation which, in my eyes, doesn’t exist?”
3/ Boycotting Apartheid
Like all sports with a large popular appeal, tennis can sometimes wield significant political clout. Historically, the BNP Paribas Davis Cup has been amongst the most visible tournaments in the world in which to make political statements. It was such that, in 1974 and with apartheid at its strongest hour, almost nobody wanted to face South Africa. Under pressure from Indira Gandhi, the Indian team, surprise finalists to being with, forfeited the match and the title. Other nations, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, Belgium, Mexico, and Colombia, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Indian Tennis Federation’s decision. South Africa would remove herself from the competition in 1978 and stay out for 14 long years…
4/ Arthur Ashe, civil rights activist
In February 1993, one of the most heroic figures of world tennis passed away from pneumonia exacerbated by the ravages of AIDS: Arthur Ashe. Born in 1943 in Richmond, Virginia into a segregated America where only whites were allowed to play tennis. “We were victims of terrible discrimination”
remembers Robert Ryland, a college friend. “We would buy finished sandwiches from white people to eat the crumbs in the car”
The first black man to be picked for the US BNP Paribas Davis Cup team in 1963, Arthur saw himself barred, a few years later, from playing in South Africa due to apartheid restrictions. Civil rights would remain his life’s work, leading to the collapse of the apartheid regime in 1991. "I don't want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments," he once said. "That's no contribution to society.”
5/ Shahar Peer was refused a visa
In February 2009, the young Israeli player Shahar Peer was refused a visa to enter the United Arab Emirates in order to compete in the Dubai Open, due to “security concerns”. "Public sentiment remains high in the Middle East and it is believed that Ms Peer's presence would have antagonized our fans who have watched live television coverage of recent attacks in Gaza,"
said tournament director Salah Tahlak. Andy Roddick showed his support for Peer by boycotting the men’s event in Dubai as a sign of protest, adding “I really didn’t agree with what went on over there. I don’t know if it’s the best thing to mix politics and sports…”
End Result: The WTA imposes a $300 000 (€227 000) fine on the event’s organisers. Of this, Peer would receive $44 250, along with a wild card for the next year’s edition of the tournament, regardless of her ranking.
6/ “Turks out of Cyprus!”
January 2007. Around to the Australian Open Marcos Baghdatis finds himself courting controversy after being filmed shouting anti-Turk slogans during a simple barbecue. The video, showing the Cypriot maybe a little drunk, brandishing a flare and shouting “Turks out of Cyprus”
whilst surrounded by a handful of Greek fans, who had organized the event, creates an enormous buzz on the internet. "In this video, I was defending the interests of my country, Cyprus, and I was protesting against a situation that is not recognized by the United Nations"
defended the player, referring to the occupation of the northern part of the Eastern Mediterranean island by Turkey. Of course Marcos, but we prefer to see you fighting with your racquet
7/ Matches behind closed doors
Båstad. A small Swedish resort where less than 5000 souls live in the off-season. Three bakeries, a hospital, twenty clay tennis courts and each year, a small tournament held since the early 1950s. However, in 1975, this peaceful village was requisitioned to accommodate a high-risk match between Sweden and Augusto Pinochet's Chile for the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. Searched and held a few miles from the stadium, more than 7,000 protesters hostile to “Augusto Pinocchio” tried in vain to disrupt the matches that were all played behind closed doors: only journalists, city staff and hundreds of police officers had the opportunity to attend matches, won by Björn Borg and his teammates. Imperturbable as ever.
8/ Fight! Bosnia and Herzegovina and Paul-Henri Mathieu
In 2008, a fight between Serbian and Bosnian fans erupted in the alleys of the Australian Open. Fans of both clans, who were coming out of the match between Novak Djokovic and the Bosnian-born American Amer Delic, fought with chairs in front of the center court in a sort-of morbid tribute to the war between the two nations in the early 1990s. A rare event in the usually very cozy world of the Australian tournament, considered very family-friendly. Result: a woman was slightly wounded in the head and thirty people were arrested, most of them being men in their twenties. Kids, actually, who already made a show in the previous round by disrupting the match between Paul-Henri Mathieu and Amer Delic. "The attitude of the spectators is shameful,”
said the Frenchman afterwards in exasperation. “If they're not interested by tennis then they should go to the bar."
Maybe not such a good idea...
9/ Adriano Panatta's Red shirt
December 18th, 1976. In a city of Santiago repressed by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Italy and its doubles pairing of Adriano Panatta and Paolo Bertolucci won the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas against Chile: the only silver trophy in the history of the country. That day, they were both wearing a red shirt on the court, as a symbol of the blood shed by the ruling regime. The atmosphere was surreal in Santiago. At his hotel, a Chilean girl even asked Panatta to take over the country. "With my red shirt, she thought I was a communist,”
laughs the Italian, 62 years old, when he recounts the incident today. Unfortunately, I don't think that I kept that shirt, like my school diplomas, cups or my medals. I'm not a fetishist. "
10/ "Sarkozy, on a court, he's like a battery"
The American Presidents George Bush and John F. Kennedy were known to be big tennis fans. The latter, a very good player even admitted once: "I managed to get many more laws passed on a tennis court than anywhere else. It was a place where the opposition lowered its guard."
In France, already a brown belt in judo, cycling enthusiast and running lover, former president Nicolas Sarkozy would have loved to be a lord of the courts too. But in tennis, the politician wasn't very good with style, technique or tactical accuracy. But better with sacrifice. "Sarkozy on a court, he's like a battery,”
said Ronan Lafaix, a former tennis coach at the HEC school, who saw him during a match against the singer Didier Barbelivien. “He was very committed with the ball. I felt him a bit stressed, uptight, all in envy and strength, without any detachment. He was the same during the last presidential debate: he was getting annoyed while Barbelivien remained cool and relaxed, just like Hollande was.”
By Victor Le Grand, with Julien Pichené