Patriot Games The U.S. Open's home-team advantage is star-spangled marketing gone awry

September 07, 2003

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,
we'll 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.

COLOR PHOTO: NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES (CAPRIATI) Versions of Old Glory were everywhere, including on Capriati. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG [See caption above]