You could spend two weeks at Roland Garros and never hear La Marseillaise. Not a single Union Jack hangs on the grounds of the All-England Club, where Wimbledon is held. But at the U.S. Open, fans could be forgiven for thinking they'd mistakenly happened upon a Davis Cup match—if not a VFW hall. Dozens of U.S. flags flew in the breeze, and more were plastered on the courtside signage. Every night a different celebrity crooned the national anthem. The U.S. Open's logo is a ball blazing through a U.S. flag, and in this post-9/11 era, everything at the Open, from the players' badges to the concessionaires' uniforms, is tinged in red, white and blue. Taking the cue, Jennifer Capriati played her first match in a dress she described as "star-spangled Jennifer." As Todd Martin put it, "There's some substantial patriotism floating around."
But what is patriotism to some is jingoism to others. And many players with the gall to hail from outside the States feel they're accorded second-class citizenship. Why, they wonder, were the players in the tournament's promotional ads almost exclusively American, at the expense of more deserving foreigners? Why did No. 52 Ashley Harkleroad, the overhyped Georgian, play in commodious Arthur Ashe Stadium while Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, the third seed and French Open champion, was relegated to the cramped Grandstand Court?
The USTA officials who make the marketing decisions and court assignments claim they're simply responding to demand: American fans prefer watching American players. But patriot games are particularly wrongheaded in tennis, a sport in which players change homelands as readily as they switch coaches. Is the talented Dmitry Tursunov, who was born in Moscow but trains in California, Russian or American? And does anyone care? Beyond that, ultranationalism is bad for business. Just two of the top 20 male seeds and five of the top 20 women are from the U.S., and a quick scan of the world junior rankings suggests that the trend will only accelerate. When the USTA treats foreign players not as Yao Mings (treasures to be admired) but as crazy uncles best kept hidden away, it sells the cast short. As a result, if neither Andre Agassi nor Andy Roddick makes the U.S. Open final, well hear the usual bleating: Men's tennis is "boring" and filled with "no-names." If neither Capriati nor Lindsay Davenport is around on Saturday night, the women's final will draw subterranean TV ratings.
Savvy fans know better. On Friday in the Grandstand, they caught a spellbinding match between the flashy Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui and Spanish prodigy Rafael Nadal. In the twilight's last gleaming El Aynaoui prevailed in three tight sets. The crowd gave a rousing standing ovation as the two men walked off. No one much minded that neither player was American.