Is it just about the tennis in Tennys?
A few thoughts on the recent backlash faced by Tennys Sandgren at his breakthrough Grand Slam event - competent, but not compliant.
"You strip away any individuality for the sake of demonising by way of the collective," Tennys Sandgren read out at his post-match presser at the just concluded Australian Open, lashing out at the media.
Now that was rather unusual, for that is not how post-match interviews are supposed to go. Questions about the match and his performance had been relegated in favour of questions targeting his social media activity, and his very personal beliefs and opinions.
In this era of social media ubiquity, was he being seen as another Donald Trump or a Harvey Weinstein now? A lot of people almost thought so, some even calling him a ‘Nazi’.
Yet Sandgren did not hold public office, nor had he interfered with anyone else’s life; he just played tennis! Less than a fortnight ago, little could he have known that his personal opinions would suddenly be called into question all over the world.
Having never reached beyond the first round of a Grand Slam, Sandgren had an almost fairytale run at this Australian Open. He reached the last eight, beating two top-ten players en route to his best ever performance on the sport’s biggest stage. Except that this fairytale did not quite have the happy ending it had apparently earned. Though Tennys had been competent at what he had come out to do, i.e., play tennis, he had not been compliant with what was expected of him, as a public figure.
As he won round after round, his growing fame led many to his hitherto nondescript social media profiles (Twitter- @TennysSandgren). Unsurprisingly, it was soon found out that apart from tennis, Sandgren had other interests too - only that these were found to be offensive and in bad taste.
It seemed like he had a keen interest in the so called ‘alt right’, and followed many white supremacist leaders and other such fringe hate groups and individuals. His own tweets were no better. One, in particular, was not very nice to the LGBTQ community – “Stumbled into a gay club last night.. my eyes are still bleeding #nooneshouldseethat” (has since been deleted).
Naturally, there was outrage and near total condemnation all over the media. And it was not only Tennys Sandgren, the 26-year-old American from Tennessee, who was subject to this outrage, but also Tennys Sandgren, the promising tennis player, who against all odds, had reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam.
It was soon clear which of the two first timers the crowd at Melbourne Park would be rooting for, and it was not because of the way either of them played tennis (Sandgren subsequently deleted all of his controversial past on social media). Soon enough, the moral police, the keyboard warriors (both self-proclaimed ‘liberals’) and many fans all over the world, claimed some sort of karmic victory as Sandgren went out in straight sets to Hyeon Chung, the rising star from Korea.
Suddenly, it was as if they saw in his defeat, the defeat of the alt right ideology, which was bound to happen - as if a battle had been won. The real battle on the tennis court, however, was conveniently forgotten.
The real magic of sport, the experience of pure joy and ecstasy that accompanies it, was suddenly tainted.
But there was a realisation. We do not live in utopia, and it is abundantly clear that we are all slaves to the collective consciousness of the society we are part of. Even something as pure as sport cannot be seen in isolation, for the personal and political can never truly be distinct, and speech and expression are seldom free.
The sooner the Sandgrens of today and tomorrow realise this, the better placed they will be to deal with the harsh realities of public life. But we will all surely be in a better place if the truth of the following statement by Sandgren did not resonate as deeply as it does today:
“With a handful of follows and some likes on Twitter, my fate has been sealed in your minds.”