A journalist, a tennis player and the president of the United States walk into a bar….
No, it’s not the setup for a joke. Indeed, it’s no laughing matter.
Tennis stars Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players on the men’s tour – find themselves in the midst of an international crisis not of their making.
The two are slated to play an exhibition match Dec. 22 in – you guessed it – Saudi Arabia, a country under a cloud of suspicion in the disappearance and presumed death of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, who entered the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and never exited.
A bit of background for those with no interest in tennis, particularly in America where so many team sports vie with one another for airtime. As brutal as boxing, as elegant as ballet, tennis has a cache that bestows prestige on places that host big tournaments. Rafanole --pronounced “Rafanolé,” as in “olé,” the nickname fans have given to the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, after their own nicknames – may not be the World Cup or the Olympics. Still, the dynamism of their rivalry – its passion and power bleeding from the baseline – would be a feather in the cap of the Saudis.
The pair has met 52 times, most recently this past summer in a splendid Wimbledon semifinal, with Djokovic holding a slight edge, 27-25. They have played innumerable exhibitions around the world – donning cowboy hats in Chile, visiting a Buddhist temple in Thailand, even playing on a boat off a glacier – so much so that Djokovic once joked that he spent more time with Nadal than with his wife and mother.
The way these exhibitions work is that the stars earn millions, usually for their charities. There’s no reason to think that the King Salman Tennis Championship will be any different. Sounds innocuous, even beneficial right? Except there’s no way for Rafanole to joke or goodwill ambassador itself out of this one. Make no mistake about it: Saudi Arabia is on a collision course with the United States Congress over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Tennis players, of course, like opera singers, set their schedules months, even years in advance. Still the announcement of Rafanole’s Saudi debut came a day after reports of Khashoggi’s disappearance. It strikes a discordant note in a sport that has seen Billie Jean King champion women’s rights and those of the LGBTQ community and Arthur Ashe campaign against racial discrimination and apartheid in South Africa, a country that was banned for many years from international competition.
Let’s not be naïve: This is a complex situation. Though 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks came from Saudi Arabia, America has long been in bed with the Saudis, including in the disastrous Yemeni civil war – because of their oil, because they counterbalance archrival Iran and because President Donald J. Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner have political and financial, professional and personal ties to them. Trump – who seems to have no love for border babies and yet can get all warm and fuzzy over Princess Eugenie’s wedding – does not want to lose an arms deal with the Saudis to the Russians or the Chinese. And, in a sense, he’s right. But there comes a time when principle trumps power, politics and the pocketbook.
Both Nadal and Djokovic have everything a man could want. And even if they didn’t, so what? It’s time to retire from this tennis match.