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Tennis: 15-looooooove

I honestly couldn’t think of anything more clever than this for a title. I’ve failed you.

Back in June, I speculated on a potential side-benefit of the World Cup in South Africa. Because of its low-tech nature, it has achieved worldwide popularity (there’s no way it’s because it’s a fast-paced and exciting game. I fell asleep 3 times writing that first sentence). And because it’s played everywhere, it has the power to span border disputes and bring together groups that have deep historical animosities.

It appears that tennis can have the same effect:

Rohan Bopanna of India and his partner Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan say if they can be friends, so can their countries. Seeded 16th, the so-called “Indo-Pak Express” are up against favourites Bob and Mike Bryan of the US.

I’m not a particular fan of tennis. It’s not a boring or uninteresting sport, but it doesn’t do much for me. I remember watching the US Open with my stepmother for the couple of months between finishing my thesis and moving to Vancouver, but that’s pretty much it. That being said, I’ll give credit where credit is due, and recognize that these two men are true ambassadors for their sport.

“It is the beauty of sport that it’s above culture, politics and religion,” says Qureshi, who is from Lahore. “So by pairing together through our tennis we are trying to give a message of peace to people of India and Pakistan. It feels very good to see the Indian fans taking autographs from me and Pakistani fans taking Rohan’s autographs. They also cheer the same team. Rohan always points out that even if we change the minds of 3% or 4% of people, it’s worth it. And if we two can be friends together, then why can’t other Indians and Pakistanis be friends?”

I’ve said before that the borders we draw between “us” and “them” are largely immaterial, and are highly mutable (Dr. DiCarlo agrees). The way we self-identify changes based on circumstances, and the moment we start to see ourselves not as “Indian” or “Pakistani” but as “tennis players”, all of a sudden the ancient enmity becomes obsolete and irrelevant. This isn’t to say that we can’t derive real positive results from strong in-group identity – seeing myself as “a skeptic” or “black” is a source of comfort that I use to motivate myself from time to time. That being said, when these mutable self-identities are a source of discord, we should be willing to re-draw our boundaries rather than… oh I don’t know… murder each other.

My favourite part of the story is a continuation of last week’s article about reaching out to build bridges to enemies:

To underline the diplomatic significance of the pair playing together, India and Pakistan’s ambassadors to the United Nations sat together and cheered them on in the semi-finals. The players now want to stage an exhibition match at the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan. They have invited their presidents and prime ministers and are awaiting a response.

The very fact that serious international heavyweights are spurred into action by a couple of tennis players seems like one of those things that could only happen in a Disney movie, but it’s happening in India and Pakistan.

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