Ever since the days of the old American Football League, when my skinny 9-year-old butt would be plastered to the cold, hard seats of Bears Stadium as I watched the Denver Broncos lose another game, I have been a sports fan. I like to play, watch and read about sports.
Less so in recent years. I still participate, but I read and watch less. Corporate greed, celebrity sense of entitlement and media more concerned with heat than light conspire to render what can be entertaining and accomplished, offensive and remote. Sport's increasingly huge presence stands in stark contrast to its ever smaller minds, and I'm unwilling to excuse it from the human race.
Now come Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi. Losers of the men's doubles championship Friday at the 2010 U.S. Open, they turn out to be the kind of winners who remind you that, sometimes, sport still transcends its insular jock culture and reflects the best of humanity.
In the same week the Los Angeles Dodgers sent a cease-and-desist letter claiming trademark infringement to a guy who sells the "Los Doyers" T-shirts that denote a long-standing Latino fan base, in the same week that Reggie Bush disavows any responsibility for his tainted Heisman trophy, a guy from India and a guy from Pakistan playing the also-ran sport of doubles tennis lose the match, win the world and set the standard for perspective and class.
Representing two nations that have been hostile neighbors for 63 years, Bopanna and Qureshi forged their partnership several years ago. They weren't making a statement; they were trying to win games. But through a simple love of sport and the commitment required to play it professionally, the two, nicknamed the Indo-Pak Express, make a mockery of those whose good fortune as owners, athletes, organizers and enablers render them clueless, craven and bereft of a sense of community.
Some athletes are handsomely rewarded to display product logos; the Indo-Pak partners wear jackets that read "Stop War, Start Tennis." They won their first ATP tournament in February, made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and beat the U.S. Open Champion Bryan brothers at a tournament in August. But because their sport is contested in the shadow of the more glamorous singles game, it wasn't until the U.S. Open, on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, that their hands-across-the-border story was widely told. It wasn't until last week that India's U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri and Pakistani Ambassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon sat together in the stands to watch the semifinal and final matches.
Like Armando Galarraga, the Detroit Tigers pitcher who lost a perfect game in June because of a bad call at first base, and graciously accepted the ump's apology after the game, this doubles match showed the bad-tempered, elitist sports world how to behave. It was the incarnation of what every kid hears from the time she can wrap her fingers around a ball: It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.
After this well-played game -- each of its two sets was decided by a tie-breaker -- at the center court award ceremony, Qureshi dedicated the match to victims of the Pakistani flood, and acknowledged the 9/11 attacks. "I feel there's a very wrong perception of Pakistan as a terrorist country," he said, standing in the brightest spotlight of his career. "We are a very peace-loving country and we want peace as much as you. ...There are extremists I think in every religion but ... you can't judge the whole country as a terrorist nation."
The response was a standing ovation, and two Bryan twins daubing the tears from their eyes. They had lots of company.
Professional tennis players are required to attend a post-match news conference; in doubles, it's rare to see more than a couple of journalists in the room. At this one, however, maybe 65 members of the media were there, and so were Puri and Haroon, who presented the Bryans with ceremonial shawls in appreciation of their sizable donation to Pakistan's flood victims.
Before the award ceremony, Qureshi had spoken to the Bryans to let them know that while he didn't intend to detract from their victory, he did want to go off-topic in his runner-up remarks. Not only did they understand, they encouraged his world-view comments in the wake of their afterthought sporting event. "What they are doing," Bob Bryan said later, "is a lot more important than winning the U.S. Open."
Yes, it is. When you're good enough and lucky enough to have a global platform, you can shrink the world. It's what sport does best.