Tennis And Diplomacy: Do Winners Need to Take All?

Eugenie Bouchard’s recent behaviour mirrors Canada’s on the international stage. By Jeremy Kinsman.
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April 22, 2015
Eugenie Bouchard of Canada takes a "selfie" using a spectator's phone after defeating Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands during their women's singles second round match at the Australian Open 2015 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 21, 2015. REUTERS/Issei Kato

The Federation Cup is an international tennis competition for women professionals, the rough equivalent of the Davis Cup for men, in which countries compete as national teams. For once, Canada has been considered a rising force to be reckoned with, principally because of Eugenie Bouchard, the 21-year old beauty from Westmount, Quebec, whose break-out year in 2014 shot her to the Wimbledon final, the semi-finals of two other Grand Slams, and status of media darling before whom endorsements dangled. As she herself recently bragged, she has become a brand.

Today, even before it’s established, the brand is tainted. For one thing, the seventh-ranked player in the world has hit the skids, having suffered five losses in a row to players outside the top 50 and even the top 100. That happens in tennis to young players as their game and moves become familiar to competitors. Usually, recovery follows after some adjustments.

Genie’s problem isn’t her game, even if it recently has been just awful. It’s unfortunately that as we get to know her, there has been less to like.

It’s not a revelation to learn that she is totally out for herself, that winning is everything. That kind of drive is essential for world success. Talent alone won’t do it. But in her case, what comes across is a haughty disregard for others. Friends were dropped, a long-time coach summarily fired, as being apparently not right for a new diva of entitlement.

Politesses and friendship on the tour are consciously jettisoned. Last year, she refused the ritualistic handshake with her Fed Cup match-up from Slovakia before the match, saying it was “lame” to wish an opponent good luck. Her remark caused a shiver but it was put down to inexperienced bravado, not to a willingness to cause offense.

Yet, last week, she did it again, to her opponent from Romania who was left in front of the cameras with her hand extended and a silly smile on her face as Bouchard gave her shoulder to what is a basic gesture of international goodwill, a theme featured by all international sporting events since the Baron de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games.

Here’s a question Tennis Canada needs to answer: given last year’s goof, did they not counsel her, please, this time, to join in the spirit of the event? Or did they agree it was just cool, that we Canadians are so cool, that we can disregard the custom of friendly communication even as we engage in determined competition? Or were they so in the thrall of their young star that they lost all purposeful judgment? Whichever it was, the country was shamed. The Romanian athletes merrily turned it into an international joke against the Ugly Canadian, made more easy by Bouchard’s collapse on the court itself. It was difficult to watch, her worried frowns becoming increasingly desperate as one young Romanian and then another made her look like a novice in front of a hometown Montreal crowd that headed early for the exits.

Eugenie’s bragging, exaggerated self-regard, and under-performance resemble mightily the way Canada approaches its international relations these days.

It is a maxim of diplomacy that communication is essential, especially with adversaries. The toughest, most important diplomacy is conducted with those we don’t agree with. Yet, official Canada is now hardly on speaking terms with many in the world. “Lecture and leave,” is how Joe Clark put it.

Canadians worked for decades in the fraught post-war and decolonizing world on behalf of essential compromises to ensure the international community produced negotiated outcomes rather than war. It wasn’t in a spirit of “moral equivalency” as Prime Minister Harper seems to believe, but because we were good at creating trust, in getting folks to a table, in hammering out solutions. We engaged. Our international reputation was tops in consequence.

That was then. Today, Canada is the moralist about other peoples’ realities, certain in our simplicities. We don’t “go along to get along,” don’t “take no for an answer” and don’t work on behalf of the international community’s effectiveness, or for the welfare of the global commons. It’s all about finding a competitive advantage for ourselves. The Harper Government bragged we were an energy superpower. That has become a more diminishing asset than Genie’s forehand.

A few years ago, when Canada was seeking election to the UN Security Council, as we have successfully done every decade or so, it became apparent to plugged-in people that Portugal, buoyed by solid EU support and by the massive Third World influence of Brazil, had the solid numbers to beat out the once-internationalist Canadians. But when our Ambassador to the UN in New York suggested to Ottawa that we should moderate some of our public lines about international issues and other countries whose policies we declared we disliked on “principle,” he was told by the PM’s senior foreign policy adviser that if he wanted to keep his job a day longer, he’d shut up.

We got our comeuppance, big-time, in a score statistically as devastating as Genie had to swallow last week in the Maurice Richard Arena.

Jean Vanier, the founder of l’Arche, an organization devoted to including the mentally handicapped in society’s love, has warned against our society’s obsession with winners and its exclusion of its deemed “losers.”

As a country, Canada needs to contribute to international wins, to outcomes where there are multiple winners. However, our condescending reserve over the hard-fought negotiations in Minsk to settle the Ukraine-Russia conflict without war, or the Iran nuclear deal, as if we believed compromises were unseemly, comes across as arrogant and strangely uniformed.

Genie Bouchard is a professional tennis player whose dream, supported by years of single-minded dedication, depends on winning.

I hope she finds her winning ways again, that the fearless protagonist’s game she brought to the court, but with elegance, no shrieking or fist-pumping, with talent that was awesome, will again enthrall us. And I hope with a bit of time, she finds that being gracious off the court isn’t out of place with her competitive goals, and actually works to support them.

I predict she’ll land on her feet and do us and herself proud. But will Canada do the same in the world again?