2011 US Open Tennis Men's Final and 9/11: Sport in the Face of Tragedy
From an early age, we learn that darkness and light are inseparable and fascinating. The dance of a bonfire, the flicker of a candle, the patterns of stars. The playfulness of our shadows. The inexplicable wonder of sunrises and sunsets, despite their regularity.
The dark and light of our emotions, at times, seem inseparable too. Part of this is because we're human and we need release. We find laughter amidst illness. We smile at a funeral. We find tears coming from hearing beautiful music.
But sometimes fate plays a hand in drawing together these opposite emotions. And so will be the case on Sunday, September 11th, 2011.
On that day, we will be coming together to remember a tragedy that changed a great deal about our world, and that still feels acute ten years later. But we will also be gathering to watch the culmination of a tennis tournament. Though still a fortnight away, it feels as if we are already preparing.
Somehow, two Sundays from now, we will have figured out how to reconcile the real drama of the world with the imagined drama of sport.
These two events will share an improbable moment in time and geography.
On that day, you're likely to hear some question whether we should allow for the spectacle of sport to intrude on solemnity. And you'll likely hear the response we've heard so often: that allowing a disruption of our lives would be the ultimate victory for terrorism. That moving on is the best response.
But we've already allowed so many necessary disruptions to how we function, how we live our daily lives, how we approach the world as individuals and as a nation.
Thinking of the men's final as just a way of hollowly moving on feels false, but worse than that, it robs us of a chance to learn and to heal.
Sport allows us to take some of our most dangerous instincts—our pride, our ambition, our thirst for domination, even our greed and our envy—and channel them into something positive. Something that is, at times, beautiful. However much drama, money, and importance we attach to tennis or to any sport, however much we dislike a certain player or team, deep down we know that it's only a game.
Maybe we allow patriotism to slip into our sports. We wear face paint and fly flags and cheer the hometown hero. And we see matters of religion and faith make an appearance, but only in the silent prayers of fans or the times a player acknowledges his or her god after a victory.
Thankfully, we manage to exclude the righteousness and polarization of politics and religion. Consider, for a moment, how remarkable that is. In one small place, you have gathered a sample of the diversity of our humanity. Not just different nations and cultures and races, but different creeds, different orientations, different politics, different values—different everything. And the same is true in the stands among the thousands of fans.
We insert these differences into the charged atmosphere of winning and losing, of competition and survival and egos. It's a passionate, contentious atmosphere at times. But however tense it gets, there are no infidels or enemies in tennis. There is no hatred, and there is no destruction.
On September 11th a thread came unraveled in the cloak of civility in which we've wrapped ourselves. It's a tattered garment, one torn by wars, holocausts, genocides, and the casual disregard of suffering.
Sport is part of how we repair that cloak. It's a small patch, of course, when compared with the mending done by charity, compassion, rescue and shared remembrance. But it is brightly colored, and it's something we can point to and say, "See this? This is what humans can do when they choose beauty and friendship over ugliness and division."
When we smile at a funeral, it isn't because we've moved on or forgotten our loss. It's because we've remembered pieces from the life we're mourning that transcend the tragedy of death.
On September 11th, 2001, a part of our humanity died, and we will continue to mourn it through memorial services and moments of silence. We will also continue to offer silent personal prayers and thoughts about what was lost.
But on September 11th, 2011, many of us will also watch a tennis match. We'll smile, not just for our love of sport and spectacle and rivalry, but because deep down, we recognize it as a small piece of our humanity that rises above our shared tragedy.
We'll watch it and know that it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and we'll say "See this? This is what humans can do when they choose beauty and friendship."
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