The Swiss player Stan Wawrinka won the 2016 US Open Tennis Championships, defeating top-seeded Novak Djokovic in four sets. It was Wawrinka’s third major title and another milestone for Swiss tennis, to go along with Roger Federer’s 17 and Martina Hingis’ 5 major singles titles. Why should we include Wawrinka with Federer and Hingis? The answer is that for a country such as Switzerland to have players who have won 25 major singles titles in the modern era is quite an accomplishment, certainly exceptional for a small Alpine country where skiing and curling are predominant sports. Yet the Swiss are resoundingly proud of Stan, Roger and Martina.
Should they be? While the recent Rio Olympics had all the flag waving one could ever hope for in the opening, closing and medal ceremonies, tennis is not considered a sport with patriotic implications. Although national tennis team competitions like the Davis and Fed Cups regularly attract attention, tennis tournaments are not considered national events. Individual players compete for themselves; doubles teams mostly come from different countries.
What is the relationship between a Swiss player and the Swiss people? Enthusiasm from Stan’s home town of St. Barthelemy is understandable; local boy made good is always understandable and he seems to represent Swiss values. But for an entire nation to bask in the glory of Stan’s victory raises the issue of identification; his victory clearly underlies that Swiss people are able to perform and succeed on the world’s biggest stage. (After all, New York City does have the largest crowd of all the major tournaments.)
But what if a player decides to reject or even question his/her relation to his/her country? What if an athlete criticizes the very nationalism that is inherent in the Swiss exuberance over Wawrinka’s victory? The American football player Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem in preseason games. He said it was a silent protest to show support for people of color in the United States, reminiscent of Tommy Smith’s and John Carlos’ raised fists during the 1968 Olympics. “I’m not going to stand up [during the national anthem] to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said.
Following Kaepernick, several NFL players decided to take similar action during preseason games. Some knelt during the anthem; others remained on the bench. Last Sunday, the first of the National Football League’s regular season, several players on different teams also kneeled during the anthem. Some even raised their fists. As the season started on September 11, this was particularly noticed, although respect for the victims of 9/11 was separate from the singing of the anthem.
The singing of the national anthem is a tradition before important American sporting events. Often this is accompanied by military marches, even jets flying overhead. The relationship between sporting events and nationalism has long been accepted in the United States. Kaepernick’s actions have set off a larger movement and perhaps a serious questioning of this tradition. The unfurling of the flag, the date 9/11/2001 on the ground, the singing of the national anthem and the military band, all before the singles finals at the US Open, followed this tradition.
While the Swiss people eagerly awaited the beginning of the match, I wondered how they interpreted this nationalism. How did nationalistic pride in Stan’s reaching the finals juxtapose with the huge flag covering the court and the decorated marines military marching?
Kaepernick’s mild protest could be the tip of an iceberg. A tradition is being called into question; perhaps nationalism and American sports will no longer be automatically intertwined. Wawrinka won an exceptional match. Those who stayed up late to watch had the pleasure of experiencing a very special duel between two outstanding players. Wawrinka deserved to win. The fact that he is Swiss did indeed add to our joy. We know him better than non-Swiss players. We are familiar with his background. But to go from there to having an anthem sung or flags unfurled is a step too many. Sports are sports. We can accept all the logos on the clothing and rackets, but we can do without unnecessary patriotism on the court.