Monday, February 06, 2006


The jubilant aftermath of Marcos Baghdatis' achievements in the Australian Open is fraught with paradox. I have always found tennis, especially when applied to compatriots, to be an intrinsically Greek game, tailoured to the psyche of the Greek athlete. After all, tennis is inherently individualistic. The player and the player alone is the master of his own destiny and no amount of cheering or interference whether beneficial or otherwise from the courtside by on-lookers can practically influence the outcome of a game.
On the other hand, and when a Greek tennis-player wins, suddenly his achievement is no longer his own. It belongs to his entire nation, in our case, not only in its political manifestation, but rather, that of the entire ethnos, exemplified by the Northern Epirots of Droviani, who saw the final life on ERT and then partied with Albanian police officers until the wee-hours. This attitude would be historically akin to the Macedonians celebrating the Hellenic victory in the Persian Wars, after lifting not a finger to resist them. All of a sudden, the victorious tennis-player is not just victorious in himself. At the moment when Marcos Baghdatis triumphantly lifted his silver coffee-tray for the world to see, one could not help visualize a suitably white-sheet clad, busty, dark-haired damsel, in the manner in which early twentieth century propagandists personified Greece, materialize behind him and try to wrest the said coffee-tray for herself. After all, all our victories reflect her greater-glory and thus are rightfully appropriated by her.
We can all rest assured that the famed silver coffee-tray, the child of Marco's prodigy and persistence shall be kept locked safely away by his mother, it being too good to serve guests with, until his wedding day, when hopefully, pumpkin soup will also be served out of an Australian Open Silver soup tureen, watered by the tears of a vanquished Roger Federer.
All of this of course, leads one to postulate that there is significant psychological or volkkunst, if not archaeological evidence to advance that if art reflects a people's personality, then it must have been invented by it. To this, our mania for proving that our autochthonous ancestors established all things in times antediluvian may add the scant archaeological evidence, in the form of bass-reliefs and vase-paintings, that seem to suggest that the ancient Greeks did in fact play a form of tennis.
Other theories, propounded by malevolent enemies of the people would place the progenitors of this most symmetrical game further south in Egypt, purely on philological grounds. The theory goes that the name tennis derives from the Egyptian town of Tanis alongside the Nile and the word racquet evolved from the Arabic word for palm of the hand, rahat, in which case it was not the ancient Egyptians who invented tennis after all but the Arabs that came after them and who did they get the game from I should like to know? Presumably it is this Egyptian connection that Goscinny and Uderzo paid homage to when they named the Egyptian character in Asterix and the Legionary Ptenisnet. Of course, regardless of who actually is the father, undoubtedly the precursors of Baron de Coubertin, French monks of the middle ages who in their tedium began playing a crude handball against their monastery walls or over a rope strung across a courtyard are definitely the mother, yelling tenez, ie. "Take this," as one player would serve to the other.
That being so, Marcos Baghdatis has achieved an ethnic equilibrium unparalleled in the annals of the game. For in achieving so much in so little time, he has not only brought honour, admiration and the goodwill of the entire world down upon his shoulders, but also given homage to both sets of spurious contenders for the role of father of tennis. For in making it to the finals in such a valiant fashion, he appeases the Greek harpie of hubris as well as his father's Arabic heritage, though it is noteworthy that the Lebanese community was not so ebullient about its compatriot's win as we were. As one die-hard Lebanese fan explained to me: "If he wins, he is Lebanese. If he loses, he is Greek."
What was most significant about Marco's stellar progression through the Australian Open was the open-hearted and kind manner in which the Australian public embraced him. Spectators, in the best of the purist Australian tradition of sportsmanship that still views sport through a vacuum of individual achievement, unsullied by other considerations, was genuinely thrilled to see a youngster, especially an easy-natured and unaffected one, strive to achieve the heights of excellence. It is conceivable that it was the boyish charm and humility displayed by Marcos that caused the Australian media to turn a complacent eye towards the Greek die-hard fans who bedecked the tennis courts in swathes of blue and white and punctuated each volley with deep and excited Greek chants.
It is just as well, for in the aftermath of the Cronulla riots, one would have expected a more cynical treatment by media and Tennis Australia alike, as in the past few years, blatant displays of ethnicity such as those manifested during Greece's European Cup win, or the Olympics have attracted cynical or negative comment by those who would have us question and review multiculturalism in the interests of cohesion.
In the case of Marco's fans, it is actually quite strange that they did not attract the same treatment. For some of the chants sung by them were blatantly political, such as «Έξω οι Τούρκοι από την Κύπρο» and flags bearing inscriptions such as "Constantinople is Greek" (which is quite true, it is Istanbul that isn't,) surely would have given rise one would have thought to a debate as to whether politics and especially the Lernaian Hydra of "ethnic" politics, has any place on the tennis court. Undoubtedly those who disagree with the sentiments displayed by the fans would agree that such displays are inappropriate. One can appreciate such a stance, especially where one considers the prospect of highly politicized compatriots of tennis players coming from countries that display enmity to each other watching a game together and the conflict that may ensue. We need no encouragement to rejoice in our ethnicity and display it jubilantly at all occasions. However, we do need to know when it is appropriate to divorce such displays from politics, lest one is confused by the other, and both are decried or proscribed by those who understand neither.
Conversely, one cannot but feel solidarity with the frustrated and isolated few who, seeing how the powers that be arrogantly trample over the rights of Cyprus, disregard UN resolutions and use coercion and blackmail in order to procure Cyprus' assent to the legitimization of the illegal occupying regime in its north, feel sufficiently moved to voice their disapprobation at such heinous activity. In a world where governments no longer feel bound by opinion polls and no longer heed protest, is the chanting of political slogans at sports matches a potent symbol of citizens' disempowerment? As one fan told me, "We are probably going to get a better hearing here, than in the UN General Assembly."
In the case of Marco's fans, the power and potency of such a futile gesture is augmented by the fact that the chants pertaining to Cyprus were executed in the Greek language, a language that few of the people the cantors sought to reach could have possibly understood. This undoubtedly underlies and proves the aforementioned contention that in the purist Australian sports vacuum, politics and games don't mix. The fans knew that they could not voice their concerns in English, for fear of condemnation, so they resorted to Greek, in a seemingly impotent preaching to the converted, signifying nothing. They did it not only because they love Cyprus, but primarily because of the boyish delight people derive from saying inappropriate things when they think they can get away with it. Therefore, it is not sufficient to view the fan's chants as a patriotic act. Indeed, coupled with their chants of male genitalia in Greek, they should be placed in their proper psychological context, as scatological and inappropriate.
If anything, they will permit those who oppose our views to sow fear and hostility into the hearts of the mainstream. The message is clear. Don't trust Greeks with their displays of ethnicity or language as they use these to subvert social norms, without propriety. All of a sudden, what seems like a pleasant stint alongside the tennis court, has the capacity to give rise to further questions about the already unraveling warp and weft of our multicultural tapestry.
For the time being though, let us bask in the glory of Marcos, marvel, hobbit-like fashion at what mighty things a 'little' people can do and ogle his girlfriend to our hearts content. Oh and another thing. Let the Cyprus Community extend an invitation to Marco's fans to chant «Έξω οι Τούρκοι από την Κύπρο» at the annual Justice for Cyprus Rally. This is an appropriate forum for their efforts and they are sorely needed. As Lysistrata could tell you, we invented the protest as well.

First published in NKEE on 6 February 2006