By Andrea Baldwin, Public Diplomacy student, Syracuse University
Is the “GOAT” (greatest of all time) Swiss? Or Spanish? Or Serbian? While New York may be home to one of the annual Grand Slam tennis tournaments, it is no longer home to all of the top talent (though American Serena Williams is arguably the best female tennis player).
Unlike most highly watched sports today, tennis is not a team sport (except for doubles, which is gaining popularity but not nearly at the level of singles). The individuality—and popularity—of this sport has led many players from smaller or less developed countries who rise to the top to become a sort of ambassador for the country. I would guess that anyone who is at all a tennis fan, could tell you that Roger Federer is Swiss, Novak Djokovic is Serbian, Rafael Nadal is Spanish, Caroline Wozniaki is Danish, and Li Na is Chinese. Many people probably associate these names with their countries more quickly than they would some of nations’ political leaders.
As a 2011 Bleacher Report article elaborates, tennis is truly becoming a global sport. Increasing numbers of countries are investing in their tennis programs and infrastructure. Where the U.S. once dominated the “Top Ten” player list for both men and women, in the past few years this list has begun to reflect the global reach of the sport, with only one or two Americans making the top ten lists.
Unlike the World Cup or the Olympics, tennis has four Grand Slams each year—Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open—in addition to dozens of tournaments around the world where many of these players frequently face off—and get to know each other. And the fans get to know them, too. While I often feel the urge to be very patriotic during the Olympics, I do not feel the need to cheer for the American in every tennis match I watch. As I learn more about these amazing players, their backgrounds, and their fans, I find myself cheering for players from everywhere—even, sometimes, when their opponents are American.
Some smaller countries that are home to big stars have seen the benefits of this exposure. Many tennis stars have worked with UNICEF as Goodwill Ambassadors and, as in Novak Djokovic’s case, National Ambassador to his home country, Serbia. They are “celebrity diplomats” for their countries and their sport, and social media has seemed to help them reach out to fans across the globe, with, for example, Rafael Nadal’s tweets reaching more than five million followers (myself included!).