Sport can be a paradigm for embracing diversity
Throughout Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, USTA.com will feature a series of first-person essays from prominent AAPI voices in the tennis world. This week, the series features thoughts from Rajeev Ram, one of the sport’s top doubles talents. Ram captured the 2020 Aussie Open men’s doubles title with partner Joe Salisbury of Great Britain and paired with Czech Barbora Krejcikova to take the mixed doubles crowns Down Under in 2019 and again earlier this year. Representing the U.S. in 2016, Ram teamed up with Venus Williams to win an Olympic silver medal in the mixed.
In his essay, Ram addresses the current crisis of anti-Asian hate and speaks about the unique power of tennis—and all sports—to foster better understanding and showcase the unlimited potential inherent in embracing diversity.
Sport, and specifically tennis, is an amazing thing. It creates the most pressure-packed, drama-filled, real-life reality-TV situations possible. Players playing as individuals, with a partner of same or opposite gender, or on a team vying for a common goal and asking their bodies and minds to continue to stretch seemingly unstretchable limits. But more, sport also has a very special power to unite, and grants a very special privilege to those who play it as its highest level to utilize their respective sport as a platform for doing good… For speaking out and reaching out…. To touch and enhance lives.
As a professional athlete, that is both a unique opportunity and an awesome responsibility.
May is AAPI Heritage month, and being a member of this group and seeing daily all the injustice going on, I feel it’s so important to stand up and speak out against this injustice. I am a proud Asian-American and I believe we are all created equal and deserve to be treated that way regardless of race. Being specifically of south Asian descent, unfortunately hate crimes are nothing new for people of my heritage. The reality is that these people are some of the most selfless, good-natured individuals who have built their lives from the ground up in a completely foreign culture all with the benefit of their future generations in mind. I consider myself so fortunate because I was able to see this sacrifice and perseverance first hand from my parents as well as the constant reminder of how important it is to be a nice, kind and tolerant person.
Through my experiences in this great game, I’ve seen time and again how the lines of a tennis court can so perfectly connect people from all countries and races and beliefs. I consider myself very lucky to have been playing tennis for as long as I can remember and for the last 15-plus years to do it as my profession. In that time, I’ve played against and alongside people of all different races, ethnicities, religions and cultural backgrounds. I’ve learned how to say ‘Come on!’ in Czech (pojd!) from Barbora Krejikova on our way to winning a couple of Australian Open mixed titles.
But that’s just it. The tennis ball doesn’t care what you look like, what language you speak or where you come from. You’re judged purely on your merit as a player, and that is what makes the game so pure. With all the hate in the world today, tennis can be the example that we look at in order to provide a guide as to how society can progress and heal in a time when that is so badly needed.
But it doesn’t stop there. This game allows players to expand their cultural horizons as well—in ways that few others do—due to its increasingly global nature. Playing all over the world with people from all over the world, I have fostered relationships I likely would have never had the opportunity to make had it not been for tennis. Not only that, it has put me in greater touch with my own Indian heritage as I’ve competed in India on a number of occasions and developed close friendships with other players on tour from that country. It has also made me realize that it is OK to come from a different background than most people I grew up with. Being a first-generation person can be quite confusing because you have one culture at home and a totally different culture when you step out the front door. But meeting people that share my home culture as well as my passion for tennis has allowed me to look at my situation as a huge benefit because I have the opportunity to take the best from two different ways of life.
Advocating for social justice is a responsibility not only for professional athletes who may have a platform, but for everyone in the community. Although I appreciate specific months that highlight certain groups of individuals, this type of thing has to be an ongoing process 365 days a year. Now, as I have gotten older, I take a lot from trying to help kids that are currently in a similar situation to what I was in. If my experiences can help them even 1% then I feel like it’s a success because it is taking the gifts that my parents gave me and passing them on to the next group. And that’s really the lasting effect of the sport. After the days of competing are over, those relationships both within and outside my own culture will live on. To me, more than any trophy I may be lucky enough to win, that is the real value that tennis brings.
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