“I’m Russian. I will always be Russian. But this is business.”
So Evgeny Korolev told World Tennis Magazine this week, explaining why he's switched allegiances (at least on the court) and now plays for Kazakhstan. He's not the only Russian to make the leap, sharing KAZ duties with Yaroslava Shvedova and Andrey Golubev, among others. No one will talk about just how much they're getting paid under their new flag (because that would be gauche, right?), but the gist is clear: loyalty can maybe, just maybe, be bought.
And doesn't that burn our biscuits, especially while we're watching the Winter Olympic Games, cheering for our countrymen and countrywomen as they take to the slopes, the ice, whatever curling is played on, to fulfill their lifelong dreams and bring home gold for their nation. For us.
At least that's how we're supposed to feel. I myself am defective. I personally don't care where an athlete is from. I take that back. I actively resent that I have to root for the home team. That's right, I said it, Patriot Act be damned. But seriously, what have they ever done for me?
I'm clearly not my mother's son. My mother lives and dies by the Red Sox. She has every player's t-shirt, even the sucky players (you know who you are). They're all her boys. Yet the minute they take off for greener pastures, they're dead to her. She loved her some Johnny Damon, until he accepted scads of money to go play for The Yankees. Then he was a scumbag. He didn't represent her at all and he never did. He was (gasp) a Yankee. Yankee fans who'd loathed 'Captain Caveman' suddenly welcomed him into their living rooms (albeit after a haircut). He represented them. Where is Damon actually from? Kansas. But whatever.
I'm not an idiot. I get it. We romanticize our athletes, fantasize that they represent us and where we're from, our culture, our values. But, you know, probably not. Not that looking at Tiger Woods and Roger Clemens isn't like looking in my mirror. So what are we left with besides the three capital letters next to their names in a draw?
In tennis it's especially mystifying to me. It's an individual sport. So shouldn't we, I don't know, sort of recognize the individual?
But we take country allegiance seriously in tennis. We even have our own form of bigotry. Oh Maria Sharapova, she's been training in the U.S. since she was 7, she's not really Russian. Mary Pierce? She was born in Canada and lives in the U.S. She's about as French as McDonald's fries. And don't get me started about Greg Rusedski.
It's not just fans who scowl. Germany's Davis Cup captain Patrick Kuhnen left his country's top player, No 19 Tommy Haas, off the team roster in their upcoming tie v. France next weekend, saying Haas's form is just too poor. What are the chances that poor form might be the one the longtime Florida-resident filled out to get dual citizenship in the U.S.?
Making things even touchier in these patriot games, so many players' stories involve struggling through wars, practicing in swimming pools, being separated from friends and even mothers and fathers to rise above their often humble station to make it big in the sport and become stars in their countries. To then whip out a checkbook and order that player like a Quacker Factory tunic off QVC seems like heresy. Or prostitution.
But while some fans cry foul over crafty little Kazakhstan and their shady backroom deals, I have to wonder: What is it they're doing that's really so egregious? Kazakhstan is trying to make a name for itself, and bring tennis to a country that's woefully underserved. What homegrown talent do they have at their disposal that can kick start their program with such relative force? Plus they're showing some love to a few players a little further down the Russian pecking order than the Davydenkos and Kuznetsovas. Or even the Andreevs and Vesninas.
And it's not like Kazakhstan is the only country shelling out bucks for a Davis or Fed Cup team. I'd doubt Australia is doling out the same kind of money, but there's certainly some incentive for new additions Anastasia Rodionova and Jarmila Groth (not to mention Jelena Dokic, who returned to the fold in '06) besides love of Vegemite and koala bears. Not that they're not awesome.
At the risk of having no country at the end of this, let me just take this opportunity to humbly challenge those of you getting all whipped up by the Olympics, or painting your faces in preparation for Davis Cup next weekend, or aiming blow darts at Korolev in Delray Beach: you know, give that foreigner a chance. Like Mikey and his big ole bowl of Wheaties, you might just like it.
I'm American. I will always be American. But this is business.
Wherever you're from, follow James at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.