Tennis Shows Selfless Heart for a Change

Novak Djokovic in soccer match for Japan

This is to update a story about tennis’ heart. Turns out, the sport has one afterall. The tour is a traveling world community that bickers plenty, but works together amazingly well overall. And I think that heartbeat might actually start with Roger Federer.

But let’s go back: The most embarrassed I’ve ever been for tennis — when I’ve been there in person anyway — was last year at Indian Wells. When this sport, which fights an image as spoiled and self-absorbed, decided to put on a Hit for Haiti exhibition to help earthquake victims, it was a touching thought. Right in the middle of a tournament, athletes would take time away to help others.

And then, well, you know what happened. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, playing doubles with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, started bickering about their petty differences and rivalry through their microphones over the p.a. system. Sampras served one at Agassi’s head.

Hello? Haiti?

Other. People.

Hundreds of thousands dead or hurt, and tennis stars, supposedly playing in their name, were upset because Agassi wrote in his book that Sampras was a bad tipper. Can you imagine?

That didn’t change the game’s image. It stuck it in concrete. But it seems that that moment does not define tennis’ heart anymore. And I just wanted to say that here, talk about something beautiful that has emerged in the game more than in any other sport.

“It feels like `The Team,’ ’’ Kei Nishikori told me at the U.S. Clay Court Championship in Houston.

In one tournament after another over the past year and a half, tennis has stepped up to help after tragedies around the world. We’ve seen exhibition tennis matches, or soccer games with tennis players. Auctions. Top players, such as Kim Clijsters, going into the stands with cups to personally ask people to donate.

Hits for Haiti, Chile, Queensland Flood Relief. And now, ongoing events for Japan.

So what happened here? I think tennis is uniquely positioned for this. When disaster strikes in Chile, they know someone from Chile, Fernando Gonzalez. Disaster in Japan? They know Kei Nishikori.

The tennis tour is played all over the planet by people from everywhere. That could lead to endless problems, distrust and discomfort. Moreso, it seems to be leading to harmony. Who could have imagined a doubles team called the Indo-Pak Express?

Nine countries are represented in the men’s top 10. Same for the women’s top 10. And while we’ve certainly heard of bickering and hard feelings in the locker rooms, at least on the women’s side, I think this togetherness carries an impressive harmony overall.

But getting along and doing good things are not necessarily the same thing. And I might be overstating this, but my sense is that credit goes heavily to Federer. Yes, he had a big hand in starting the trend, with the first Hit for Haiti last year at the Australian Open. He has been involved in several of these things.

But more important is his leadership. I just don’t envision Jimmy Connors having done something like this when he was No. 1. Andre Agassi did set up his school, which was impressive.

But Federer seems to be a nice guy willing to help others. That’s not to leave out Nadal. But Federer has been on top of the game much longer, and is the one setting examples. Maybe other players follow his lead.

Roger Federer

Maybe his great play through the years isn’t the only mark he’s going to leave, but also a changed culture.

Nishikori said the biggest problems in Japan are hours away from his home. He is  unaware of any family or friends to have suffered. But he sees the pictures on the web and feels awful. Having moved to Florida for his tennis, he also feels a little uncomfortable about not being there.

“It is sad, sad,’’ he said. “I can’t feel the people’s feeling. . .Still the people have o food, no clothes. People just struggling.’’

He said he heard about it by reading online the day before his first match at Indian Wells. He thought he shouldn’t play, but then changed his mind.

All sorts of players, from the team, are asking him if he’s OK, and if his family is safe. He thanked Novak Djokovic in particular, for playing the charity soccer game in Miami. Several other players, he pointed out, are donating things to the charity auction he’s involved in.

It hasn’t gone viral the way the Sampras-Agassi video did. But this has been an impressive we-are-the-world type of showing for tennis.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

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