Baghdad is not a place for man nor beast these days. Nor tennis players either, it would seem. The news from the front is not good. The AP reported on Saturday that an Iraqi tennis coach and two of his players were yanked from their cars and gunned down by unidentified men. The problem? Not with the game apparently, but with the attire. The men were warned not to wear shorts on the grounds that it was offensive to Muslim sensibilities. The men – the coach was a Sunni, the two players were Shiites – apparently decided to go ahead anyway. Which probably should prompt the question in our minds, what sort of bubble do tennis players live in when they live in Baghdad? Where people are dying all around you, and daily life is generally topsy-turvy? And if we maintain that they should play on, then what are the logistics of even getting practice courts in this environment? And where ARE the practice courts?

God, tennis players in Baghdad. It’s a surreal touch almost hatched from a mind like Joseph Heller’s, in Catch 22. But I like it though, don’t you? It is important that, in the face of extreme human stupidity and cruelty, we have a few idiot savants who want to run out and play tennis, even if it is a rainy day and the world is falling apart around them. Or perhaps not. Is it possible the Bush administration is correct that progress is being made, and people are feeling more optimistic there? Could the players really feel that way too? In which case, they felt enough progress toward a new future had taken place that they could venture forth. Legs bared. I hope someone there could perhaps come forward and shed further light on this miserable event.

This whole episode probably says something about where tennis players exist, no matter where they live in the world. In the mental scheme of things. There is a simplicity and a purity to tennis that seems so inviolate as to make us gravitate towards it. And yet tennis is an utterly useless activity, in the big scheme of things. Like chess, or opera, where I can’t even understand the words nearly all the time. But I feel better when I put my grubby hands on them. These forms of art, and sport, offer us succor of some strange sort. Strange fruit. I’ll take it.

I remember a tale I heard taking a train trip – second class, thank you – through India in the late 70s. A young Dane onboard told me about an earlier train ride when he sat across from a Hindu couple, a middle-aged man and his wife. The wife seemed very disconcerted throughout the trip, then she finally whispered something to her husband. He looked over at the Dane, who was wearing shorts, it being India in the great heat of summer just before the monsoons hit, and said, “Please sir, would it be possible for you to cover your legs. My wife finds it a great distraction.” The young man was happy to oblige. He found it all rather amusing, as did I at the time. I could concur with the wife. His legs were a beautiful distraction, and because I was born where I was, I was able to freely and unabashedly enjoy the sight of them. Others across the globe are not. And are, in fact, offended by the very idea. Hence our current situation.

So, perhaps we can suggest that the Iraqis, sadly, should have chosen a wiser course. Especially in the light of many middle class Iraqis now packing it in and taking their leave of Baghdad. Once and for all. It is just not worth it, and their fear has finally started to outweigh their hopes. It is just too dangerous a place to have any hope of a normal life anytime soon. Those players and the coach probably knew some of those people who were fleeing the city. The fact they chose to stay could indicate one of two possibilities. They either truly were living in a bubble, and felt themselves well enough off that their safety was not a question. Or they were fully aware of the dangers, but chose to stay on anyway, like many German Jews did even after Hitler came to power.

The latter choice personally sounds more inviting to me. It’s a way of thumbing your nose at the chaos ands strife around you. Yeah, I’m wearing shorts, you got a problem with that? But that could just mean you are being an utter ass, and you deserve to get yourself shot up. You have to take into account your surroundings. How real is the danger. In early Nazi Germany, you could fudge it a bit. After all they were so bloody middle class at their root. In Baghdad, it’s different. It’s horrifically publicly violent in ways that Nazi Germany would never allow. At least they killed you neatly, behind closed oven doors. No muss, no unsightly sights to scare the horses and the children. In Baghdad there is no such luxury. It’s all in beautiful living, immediate color.

There are also certain risks involved, and those Iraqis may not have been ready for the challenge of what happens when you engage in poor reality testing. In a war zone. So, what were they thinking? It sounds harsh to suggest this, but they bear some responsibility here. To go or stay, that is a key question. Perhaps in the end they should have realized the threat to their safety was serious and acted accordingly to protect themselves better. But this is coming from a coward, who has learned with age that there are, truly, times when you just have to cut your losses and bail.

Now I understand more what Sania Mirza, the Muslim player from India, has to deal with. Tennis and all surrounding it are lovely and fine in my book, including the attire. Here I am, looking over my own notes the other day to propose a return to short shorts in a future column, and these guys in Iraq are willing to kill people over these baggie things the guys all seem to wear nowadays.

Go figure out the world.

Tennis forever.

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