As a young kid playing tennis on the cracked and ill-kept public courts of rural Western Kentucky, I had my idols who inspired both how and why I played. I loved Bjorn Borg, despite my great aunt's admonishment to "always root for the American" (had she ever seen a John McEnroe temper tantrum perhaps it would have changed her mind, though I doubt it). Borg's topspin and two-handed backhand were things I tried to copy into my young game, elements of which are still with me 30 years later (e.g. my anachronistic loopy backswing).
Tennis made a huge difference in my young life, giving a quiet, bookworm-ish and sometimes sissy boy an entry into the realm of athleticism and acceptance. Not the same acceptance that would have come had I shown an aptitude for, say, basketball -- a sport in which I was horribly inept -- but acceptance nonetheless.
It's easy to say in retrospect that having an openly gay pro tennis player on the national sports scene would have made a difference in my young life. But I think it would have, though the difficulties of being out at the time would have made any idolization on my part furtive. I heard how rural America reacted to Renee Richards and it was ugly, the same as it was when they talked about Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.
Of course, they were all pioneers and the results of their efforts became a much stronger influence long after I'd passed through adolescence and into my grown-up, out-of-the-closet life. I had thought, as I grew older and as being gay became less exotic, that tennis would be the sport where we'd see our first major gay male professional athlete.
Obviously, I was wrong.
Right now, it's the women we look to for inspiration -- and there's a lot there to inspire. After King and Navratilova, Amelie Mauresmo came out early in her career and later went on to win both the Australian Open and Wimbledon -- and became a much-loved icon in France. The idea that lesbians play professional tennis has become, if not universally accepted or openly discussed on ESPN, an accepted fact of life.
Yesterday, I interviewed Australian player Rennae Stubbs, winner of six grand slam doubles titles. Stubbs is in Washington playing for D.C.'s World Team Tennis team, the Washington Kastles. The interview won't be out until next Thursday in Metro Weekly, but we did talk about the difference in acceptance between the men's and women's tours. She doesn't think we'll see a male player come out any time soon, even though everyone knows there are gay players on the tour, same as there are gays in every other part of life. The anticipated reaction from other male players, Stubbs says, keeps male players in the closet.
It's odd, because so many of us assume that in an individual sport like tennis, coming out would be easier than coming out on a football or baseball team (team sports where athletes wait until they're retired before making the big announcement, like John Amechi and Billy Bean).
In an interview in 2007, Navratilova told me
In tennis, they can't keep you from entering a tournament if you're gay. It's a lot easier to be open because you don't lose your livelihood, you don't lose the possibility of performing and playing your sport. But it's still funny to me that no men have come out. There are certainly gay men players. It's funny that on the golf tour and the men's tour nobody has come out on the men's side.
So while the women's tour enjoys the presence of such outspoken lesbian players as Stubbs, we're left on the men's side to play the ever-popular parlor games of guessing which players are and which players aren't. It's a pastime that seems petty, but given how sports media continually shoves the heterosexuality of male players down our throats, it's more understandable. I, for one, am really sick of hearing all about Andy Roddick marrying a swimsuit model.
Maybe as I write this there's a young kid out there honing his game on the courts and comfortable enough in his own skin that he'll compete on his own terms -- as an athlete who happens to be gay. I can only hope that at some point soon someone steps up to set an example and make tennis -- and other sports -- a part of the real world.