As Milos Raonic waited to play his match against Filip Krajinovic Wednesday night in the US Open bubble, he turned on the television in his suite at 4 p.m. to watch the Toronto Raptors.
There was no game.
He doesn’t usually check his phone. But he did this time, and that’s how he found out that there was no basketball at all.
The shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday in Kenosha, Wisc. – seven times, in the back, by a white officer now identified as Rusten Shesky – has led to a increase in intensity in the protests over police brutality towards Black citizens. The Bucks, who play in nearby Milwaukee, decided not to play in solidarity.
The rest of the NBA joined them, along with the WNBA and some Major League baseball teams.
Raonic considered doing the same – even before he had learned that fellow player Naomi Osaka decided Wednesday night not to play her semifinal match against Elise Mertens Thursday morning.
“There were parts of me that did think about it today before my match. But the way tennis is structured, it’s a walkover and another person continues,” said Raonic, who needed two hours and 42 minutes to defeat Krajinovic 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Raonic broke the Serb when he served for the match in the second set and also saved two match points in the third when he served to stay in it.
Small gestures not enough, per Raonic
Ultimately, Raonic decided it was too small a gesture, considering his current ranking and the fact that ESPN did not pick up his match; it aired on Tennis Channel, which has considerably fewer eyeballs.
“Right now I’m 30 in the world, so not many people in the world are going to care what I do. It’d be the same thing as if a fifth guy on a (basketball) team stepped out for a game,” Raonic said during a Zoom press conference after the victory, in answer to a question from tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg. “Kyrie (Irving) sitting out – I think it makes a difference, and it makes a point. But clearly it’s not getting the job done.”
Raonic, who was born in Montenegro and immigrated to Canada as a toddler, said he’s never had to experience many of the things Blacks have to deal with – not being treated equally, having to live in fear.
He likened the evolution of a movement to create meaningful change to the evolution of an athletic career.
“Just like you would build up a tennis career, you have to build up the movement with small progressive steps – trying to be better each day and make a bigger difference each day,” Raonic said.
“I think small steps are effective – if you follow up. It’s not just about taking one small step and then being like ‘Hey, I’ve done my part’. It’s about taking a small step and then looking to take the next small step,” he added.
“With a lot of people opting out in the NBA. I think those are first small steps. Wearing the shirt, speaking about it. I think (today), this is the next step. We as players, the ATP and WTA Tour, need to look at what is our next step.”
A walkover without follow-up moot
Raonic said there wasn’t much value for the four players remaining on the men’s side of the “Cincy” event – himself, scheduled semifinal opponent Stefanos Tsitsipas, ATP Player Council president and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut – to get together and take a common stand.
“If four guys step up tomorrow but everything continues as normal on Monday when the US Open starts, have we taken that next small step after not playing the first day? It’s about continuously pursuing what you feel is just and right,” Raonic said.
“Where do we stand about this? Where are we at, with what we can do, to do our part, as much as we can. A lot of us are from different parts of the world. But we come to the U.S. to play every year; a third of our big tournaments are here. We should do the right thing to support this inequality and this unfair, unjust behaviour.”
The “Be Open” US Open
The US Open, which already is dealing with hugely challenging circumstances in trying to get a Grand Slam tournament played during a pandemic, has adopted as its slogan “Be Open” for the 2020 event.
Its mission statement is thus:
“Our commitment to openness has taken on even greater urgency this year with the reigniting of the Black Lives Matter movement. The USTA stands unwaveringly against racism and injustice of any kind and stands in solidarity with our African-American friends and colleagues of colorr. Continuing to strive to make our culture inclusive and welcoming to all can only help us in our quest to seek answers that will heal our communities. Seeing our differences as valuable assets will only make us stronger.”
After what surely were lively discussions with stakeholders, the USTA issued this statement late Wednesday night saying the tournament would “pause” on Thursday.
So the question the USTA is faced with is this: with the NBA’s decision Wednesday night followed by several Major League Baseball games also being postponed, how do they handle it?
If the matches in the (relatively) smaller Masters 1000 tournament this week, played before no fans, didn’t go on, that would be a dilemma that wouldn’t even affect them. The USTA has a small ownership stake in the “Cincy” men’s event, but no other major stake.
But this already-embattled US Open is a different matter entirely.
Patches, T-shirts – nice, but not enough
It puts the US Open in a rather tight spot. As it is, with so many top names having opted not to play in New York, the quality of the product that they promise sponsors and broadcasters in return for the millions in revenue they receive has been diminished.
“It’s a tough time for everybody. For this to happen, in a very visual and disturbing way twice within . . it’s happened many times over. But I think it really garnered a lot of a attention (now) due to many people being at home and not busy out and about with their own days,” Raonic said of the most recent tragic killings over the summer.
“Having a sign somewhere, of support, banners, at a tournament or wearing a shirt in a warmup in an NBA game, it can only do so much,” said Raonic, who added he would be happy to add a “Black Lives Matter” patch to his New Balance shirt.
But, he said, that’s the easy part.
“I think a lot of real disruption is caused by affecting people in a monetary way, and that can force some kind of change,” he said. “I’m hoping there is a change and I hope the actions that take place over the next days, weeks, months, years – this isn’t going to chance in a day – really do create a systemic change that provides an equal opportunity for everybody – especially in the free world.”