When Tennis and Politics Collide

By Jane Voigt

The obvious: Social media is deeply imbedded in our hearts, minds and bodies. Just look up and see for yourself. Anything is game. And anyone can get gamed. Take Tennys Sandgren. 

The 26-year-old Tennesseean captured the world’s attention at this Australian Open in a big way. He had never won an ATP tour match let alone one at a major. Then he battled his way to the quarterfinals, upsetting 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka and fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem. Sandgren had become the first unseeded American to reach a quarterfinal in Melbourne since Patrick McEnroe in 1991.

What great stories for tennis — which is how you pronounce his name — and sport. 

But then the fairytale darkened. News surfaced of posts, likes, and who Sandgren followed on Twitter. America had a new tennis star, but a complicated one. 

Interpretations of his comments swung left and right. He was a member of the alt-right, some said. He helped spread the Hilary Clinton Pizza-gate misinformation during the run-up to the presidential election. He followed President Trump and his administrative team. Collectively the posts seemed to suggest that Sandgren should not be lauded for his tennis accomplishments over the fortnight, but should be called out and scolded for his political views. 

Sandgren’s character went on trial. More questions arose, ones infrequently, if ever, heard during tennis-related press conferences. 

He sat one-on-one with Chris McKendry of ESPN early one day, as the hubbub spread. She wanted Sandgren to explain himself. Did he align himself with the alt-right? Where did he stand? The inquiry seemed to ask if tennis fans should trust him. 

Ridiculous, right? Yet when we can spout off on any topic, at any time and have followers engage, spread and amplify our take, that’s where conversations can go.  

Sandgren tried to set the record straight, after she asked him if he was the one who had deleted his tweets from June 2017 and “going back more than a year’s time.” 

“Yeah, I put a program on that just deletes all the tweets,” he began. “It’s not something I’m necessarily embarrassed about. It’s about creating a version of a cleaner start. It was not a bad call. People can screen shot and distribute everything that they’d like to and that’s fine. I just thought that it wouldn’t be a bad way to move forward.”

The clean slate, which would hopefully fence off Tennys as a person from Tennys as a tennis player, began when he declared himself a Christian to McKendry. “Who do you want people to know about who you are?” she had asked. 

“First and foremost I’m a practicing Christian; and I take that very seriously,” he said. “Beyond that, I try to treat people with respect and follow the Golden Rule to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

He had, in a few minutes, exposed his religious stance and confirmed he didn’t find alt-right information valuable, saying “that’s not who I am as a person.”

But the budding world where tennis and politics collide didn’t end there. 

Before any one could ask Sandgren a question today, after his loss to Chung 6-4, 7-6(5) 6-3, he read a statement from his phone. Apparently, he didn’t just want to stop the virtual flow of conjecture about his life off court from his life on court. He wanted to build a wall. 

“You seek to put people in these little boxes,” “You would rather perpetuate propaganda machines instead of researching information from a host of angles and perspectives while being willing to learn, change and grow,” “You dehumanize with pen and paper…” “In turn you turn neighbor against neighbor” while “actually find[ing] you’re hastening the hell you wish to avoid, the hell we all wish to avoid.”

“I’ll take questions about the match, if you guys don’t mind,” he said, finished with the ground rules. “Thank you. If you have any questions about the match.”

The press complied until it didn’t. 

Question: “Out there on the court you both had racquets. Why is it okay that you can make your comments and we can’t respond?”

Answer: “This stopped being about tennis. I feel like this has gone very far away from tennis. I’d like to continue talking about tennis. If you guys are done, I can leave. That’s fine.”

Before Sandgren’s match got under way today, an evacuation alarm went off. During the ear-splitting noise everything stopped. No one knew what was going on and everyone inside Rod Laver Arena stood on common ground. It’s a place we seldom find in life, let alone in tennis. 

Going forward, perhaps an alarm should go off in our heads before we air our opinions. Maybe the free-for-all Twitter environment needs a child-like time out, at times, as we seek common ground between tennis personalities and politics. Reporters certainly should ask all the questions they feel relevant to their story and their readers. And, people should continue to air their views without consequence. That’s not the point. The point is to think.




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