In a world grappling with the demons of parochialism, a new generation of tennis stars is reminding us of the beauty that globalisation has wrought.
Naomi Osaka, half-Japanese, half-Haitian, and completely brilliant, is the world’s number one ranked female player. Stefanos Tsitsipas the half-Russian, half-Greek sensation who defeated Roger Federer in the Australian Open last week, is being hailed as the future of the men’s game. Frances Tiafoe, the son of refugees from Sierra Leone, whose father found employment as a construction worker at a tennis centre near Washington DC, is the new face of American tennis. Alex de Minaur born to a Spanish mother and Uruguayan father, represents Australia with pride, as does tennis’ enfant terrible the half-Greek, half-Malaysian Nick Kygrios.
These rising stars are doing more than just adding a multi-cultural flavour to the tennis world. They are forcing the countries they represent to confront issues of national identity and race, and showing the world what hungry immigrants (and their children) can achieve. Osaka is changing the discourse in Japan, a country that has deeply embedded notions of racial purity. Australia’s politicians might be turning away boats full of desperate refugees, but its sports-loving citizens adore the children of immigrants who shine on the field.
From Jesse Owens to Martina Navratilova to the Williams sisters, minorities and immigrants have used sporting excellence to hold a mirror to racism, authoritarianism, and hyper-nationalism. Now, children born from the cross-cultural currents enabled by the globalisation of the 20th century are making their mark in a world turning increasingly insular.
These stars have come to showcase, inadvertently, the strange quirks of fate in a multi-racial, multi-cultural world. Osaka’s blood is as Haitian (of African origin) as it is Japanese, and the country that has had the biggest role in her development is the US where her parents, inspired by the story of the Williams sisters, moved her to at the age of three. Osaka grew up hearing Creole, Japanese and English at home. Today Japanese fans claim her as their own, but it is debatable if she would have been accepted as easily had her Haitian-African genes dominated her facial features, or if she had retained her father’s last name instead of her mother’s (a call her parents took, to make it less difficult for Naomi to be accepted in Japan, where she was born). To call Osaka the first “Asian” world number one, is perhaps as accurate as it is to call Barack Obama America’s first “black” president. Obama, the product of a Kenyan father and white mother, belongs as much to African-American culture as he does to white America.
Yet we embrace these children of destiny who, with a fortuitous combination of the “right” name and “right” dominant racial gene, have honed their rare talents. “Fortuitous” is probably not the adjective they would choose, given the struggles that Obama as a visibly black man in America and Osaka as a visibly biracial woman in Japan, had to endure. But in a world where the politics of hate and mistrust is being used to exploit the worst human instincts, stoking fear of the outsider and the Other, these new age multi-ethnic, multi-cultural stars are a priceless gift.
Today cutting-edge genomic technology is demonstrating how almost all modern human beings are effectively mixed race. DNA testing services accessible to the general public, such as The Genographic Project (a multiyear, non-profit, research initiative led by National Geographic) and AncestryDNA, reveal the percentage of your genome that is affiliated with specific regions and ethnic groups across the world. A few years ago, the journal Nature reported findings from three separate teams of geneticists who surveyed DNA collected from cultures around the globe, and arrived at the same conclusion — that all non-Africans today trace their ancestry to a single population of early humans emerging from Africa between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago.
National and ethnic allegiances are exposed for the bizarre, artificial constructs that they are, when DNA tests reveal how diverse the genetic composition of each human being is. Yet racial and communal prejudice is as rife as ever in today’s world with temples, mosques, walls, and identity cards forming the basis for electoral battles in supposedly evolved democratic societies.
Naomi Osaka and her beautifully hybrid peers offer a much-needed counter balance to the nastiness of a world gone mad. May their tribe increase.