Friday, August 30, 2013

Why Do I Have To Cheer for an American?


Like many of you, I was captivated last night by the thrilling match between John Isner and Gail Monfils. The two players engaged in one of the more entertaining matches of the tournament (certainly the best on the show courts) and energized a New York crowd that had, up until this point, been very tame. The patrons ended up spending most of the third and fourth set on their collective feet and saluting two tennis warriors giving it their all. When you think about the US Open and the atmosphere created here in Queens, you think about raucous crowds and tremendous excitement (usually at night) that can't be matched anywhere else. That is what Isner vs Monfils gave us.

Sounds perfect right?  Apparently not. Throughout the telecast, the ESPN announcers openly questioned why the New York crowd was not cheering for the American Isner versus the foreign invader Monfils. Ignoring the fact (at least at first) that Monfils was two sets down and attempting to make a late comeback (thus meaning that cheering for Monfils meant cheering for more tennis), Chris Fowler and Brad Gilbert spent a good deal of time asking how could a New York crowd not support its own. Even though Monfils was playing the role of entertaining underdog and hitting stunning shots to give him a chance against the huge serve of Isner, for these two announcers the only question was one of passport. Isner is American and thus we Americans should cheer him no matter what.

Watching the match at the hotel (we did take last night off from the live premises), I kept saying out loud, "Why in the world should I have to cheer for an American?" Even though I received no answers (I was after all by myself and talking to no one), the point still sticks with me here a day later. Gail Monfils is possibly the most entertaining player on the ATP Tour. His style of play is exciting, with each match and up and down roller coaster of frustrating inconsistency and dynamic moments of top ten level play. But his personality is even better. He plays along with the crowd, jumping up and down when they cheer, laughing and smiling throughout and generally trying to be a showman from the first serve of the match. If Monfils was just a bit better (he once reached #7 in the world, but is now in the 30s), he would be the type of tennis player that could become a transcendent sports star. In fact, in a world where virtually no player outside of the Big Four has any traction with the American sports public, Monfils should be celebrated as having all the marketable qualities that could make him explode on the low attention span ESPN-era stage.

Further, there is no place in America where such theatrics would be more celebrated than here in New York. Yet there was Fowler, one of the most known broadcasters in all of sports, acting befuddled at the New York cheers and wondering aloud how something this "shocking" could be happening. He at one point asked whether Isner would ever be cheered so in France and added that it makes one wonder why it would happen here. For Fowler then, the American tennis fan should be a caricature of a Toby Keith country song, only hoping that fellow countrymen put a "boot in their ass" during every match, while we yell with reckless abandon for our star to "light up their world like the Fourth of July." I am surprised at such a low view of the tennis public. But at least Fowler was just acting surprised at the cheers, Brad Gilbert on the court seemed genuinely upset. He talked of a woman next to him who was angry at fans in the stands for their supposed treasonous behavior and suggested that he agreed with the sentiment. Gilbert noted that with American male tennis having so few stars, it was ridiculous not to support those actually with a chance to make a run.

That is all well and good but guess what. Monfils is the most fun player on tour and some of us appreciate fun.  Nothing against Isner, who has had a tremendous summer and who I support in virtually all of his matches. But his powerful service game is not exactly aesthetically pleasing. While I enjoy watching him at his peak performance, his matches usually become slugfests, with exhilarating tiebreaks interrupting the monotony of the otherwise lackluster play. I want Isner to win more often than not because we happen to be born on the same soil, but when I see a person with the entertainment value of Monfils on the court, forgive me if I don't simply go into a fit of anger at his success because we have an ocean between us. My tennis fandom is not that narrow-minded, even if others across the world would supposedly disagree.

The best part of tennis is the way that it equalizes success across a myraid of countries and nationalities. And what better place to celebrate this inclusion than in the most diverse city in the world. Normally that will still mean that our New York crowd rallies around its own against a storm of invaders. But sometimes we might just celebrate the beauty of the game over the pledge of allegiance cited by the player. That isn't somehow being disloyal, it is being explicitly American, a fact that I hope Fowler and Gilbert will ultimately appreciate.