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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Feb 12, 2009

2/12/2009 1:05:00 PM


Feb 12, 2009

So this very special Wednesday Sweet Spot is brought to you on Thursday thanks to a nasty flu. Yes, even people who work from home are at risk. Board the windows, vacuum-seal your children.

Of course, the one benefit from being forced onto the couch for days on end is all the TV you get to watch. And you find yourself watching the weirdest things. Make Me a Supermodel marathons on Bravo, that other A-Rod repeatedly calling the Sports Illustrated reporter who outed him as a steroid user a stalker (I in fact was in and out of consciousness while ESPN was left on, and they did love that story), and as we speak, Miss Piggy is being interviewed on The View (I'm convinced I'm still high on meds).

But something else I saw gave me chills of a different kind. Tennis Channel aired the South African Open. 

If I can get personal (and I'm sick, so who are you to tell me no), I had the opportunity to spend some time in South Africa in 2005. A film of mine was being shot there so we were all over the place, and it was quite an education. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous place. It also still very much has the scars of Apartheid, and they run deep.

Before I go any further, let me point out that the South Africans I interacted with were warm, wonderful and very generous. But recovering from something like Apartheid takes time.

Nowhere were the scars deeper than in the townships. In the 1980s, all "legal" black people were moved to these shanty towns, and they still exist today. Filled with tin shacks and stunning poverty, millions call them home. I went on a tour of one guided by someone from the township, and it was an experience I will never forget. Bedrooms that were 11 to a bed, no indoor plumbing, the only electricity what a select few could steal, kids having to run home after school to lay claim to their part of a loaf of bread for dinner, cooking done by highly combustible kerosene (which had that week caused a huge fire that scorched miles and left even more people homeless). And Saturday is Funeral Day because of the large number of AIDS deaths. A week.

Sometimes winning is bigger than the sport.
It seems strange to pay to see other people's misery, but it wasn't about that. So many of them, despite their circumstance, were content. Happy. They were a community. They just wanted the world to see them. Know them. Acknowledge them.

Fast forward to 2009, and the men's tour is back in South Africa after nearly a decade and a half absence. The stands for the final are filled with Africans, and they're holding up signs that are best summed up by one in particular: "Float L A Butterfly, Sting L A Bee." Oh yeah, these people were rooting hard for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With a Congolese father, he was whole-heartedly embraced and cheered for with every nasty winner he hit. He floated and stung his way to the title. The crowd went nuts.

I was in Cape Town, which is south of Jo'Berg where the tournament took place, but when I think of those townships, all gathered around that lone TV, I can only imagine what they must've felt. To be seen. To see themself.

And that's why I love tennis. Tsonga's story, while powerful, isn't unique. There are trailblazers and role models on courts the world over, who have a heck of a lot more on their shoulders than just qualifying for a tournament or finding a power drink to endorse.

Indian Sania Mirza has been burned if effigy and had a fatwa against her. She and Isreali Shahar Peer rocked the scene simply by playing doubles together. That's not all the political sturm und drang Peer's faced, her playing Qatar last year making her the first Israeli player in WTA history to play in a Persian Gulf state. And how about the women from Iran playing Fed Cup last week covered completely from head to toe?

So while everyone's complaining about drug testing, gambling or even the state of the women's game, we should all take the time to remember, there's a bigger world out there. One in which people are riveted to a single beat up TV, inspired by people just like them to reach for higher heights, or at least not feel so alone. So here's to what tennis does right. And to those players who fight that much bigger fight. The true game changers.