By David Thorpe
Francisco Rodriguez is spanking forehands and smacking backhands on a private tennis court in Atlanta, sweat pouring from his shirtless chest. A gaggle of gay boys watch in awe. 'Some guys are interested in me because of tennis,' Francisco says. 'I still look like an athlete. I can still hit the ball, and that catches their attention.'
Their interest is understandable. A former two-time all-American college player, Francisco played professional tennis from 2001 to 2006, won two small tournaments, and once held a world ranking in the high 300s. At 32 he still represents his South American homeland in the prestigious international Davis Cup competition.
'I miss the thrill of competing a lot,' he says. 'I just couldn't travel alone anymore. Wanting a boyfriend was in the back of my mind all the time. Having someone off the court who is in your corner -- it helps a lot.'
Until recently, however, a boyfriend in Francisco's corner -- or even a group of gay fans -- was unthinkable. 'If you came out on the tennis tour,' Francisco says, 'you would be an outcast.'
No professional male tennis player has ever publicly come out of the closet. Not that there haven't been gay male tennis players. One of the greatest of all time, Bill Tilden, was a kind of tennis version of Oscar Wilde. A big, sophisticated, charming man who revolutionized the sport in the 1920s with his multifaceted game, Tilden won 10 Grand Slam singles titles and cavorted with movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead and Douglas Fairbanks. His predilection for young men was an open secret in tennis circles, but according to Tilden biographer Frank Deford, Big Bill would never have publicly avowed his homosexuality. In 1946, Tilden was arrested on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills with a young man in his car -- whose fly was wide open. He went to jail for eight months, only to be arrested again in 1949. He died a penniless outcast.
Since Tilden's tragic fall, however, dozens of pro, Olympic, and high-profile college athletes have successfully swum, skated, run, golfed, rugbied, and Nordic-skied their way out of the closet. Tennis has been a cradle of lesbian liberation, from feminist legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to current top 20 player and two-time Grand Slam winner Am'lie Mauresmo. Mauresmo, a former world number 1, isn't exactly out loud and proud in the media, but she's struck a major blow for gay athletes by retaining her sponsorships and becoming a beloved national hero in her home country of France.
The fact that no male pro tennis player has come out puzzles even longtime tennis observers. 'I'm surprised that a male player hasn't come out. It's a safe sport in which to come out. The other player is on the other side of the net. What can he do?' says 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Navratilova. The Czech gay goddess also points out that, since tennis players aren't hired or fired by coaches or owners, 'no one can take your job away' and that in general male players are not homophobic. 'We know players encounter gay folks: Andy Roddick is a regular at Elton John's charity events. Roddick or Andre Agassi wouldn't not hire someone because of his sexual orientation,' she claims.
Croatian player Ivan Ljubicic seems to prove Navratilova's point. Ranked number 3 in 2006, Ljubicic is also president of the tour's player council. 'I'd be really surprised and shocked if someone had a problem with a [gay player]. We're an international tour, we have all races. If there's any kind of discrimination, as a tour we would act,' he says.
Sports Illustrated tennis guru Jon Wertheim thinks coming out for a male player could actually be a sort of promotion. 'Tennis has such a big gay fan base that anyone who came out would be a celebrity. If player X came out today, he would get his own line of clothing tomorrow,' Wertheim says. Dapper four-time Grand Slam singles champ and full-time tennis entrepreneur Jim Courier concurs but puts it a little more technically. 'Differentiation is critical to obtaining endorsements, and companies are more and more aware of appealing to all demographics. I would think there is a circumstance where it would be an added financial benefit for a player to come out,' he says.
Many people interviewed for this article, from tennis tour staffers to former players to pundits, believe that an openly gay player would cause, in Courier's words, 'an initial shock wave,' but then the tour would adapt, and everyone would move on.
So what's the holdup? Just ask Justin Gimelstob.
'I think Jon Wertheim is utopian in his thought process. I think there's a 100% chance that [a player who comes out] would be an outcast and wouldn't be signing a deal for Viagra or Trojans,' says Gimelstob, a 31-year-old American player who retired last fall. The New Jersey'born Gimelstob, a USDA ham on the tennis court, is now a TV tennis commentator and columnist. 'Good luck finding top players to talk about this,' he says.
Is tennis, so genteel compared to rough-and-tumble mainstream team sports like football and basketball, really that homophobic? Gimelstob is unequivocal. 'The locker room couldn't be a more homophobic place,' he says. 'We're not gay-bashing. There's just a lot of positive normal hetero talk about pretty girls and working out and drinking beer. That's why people want to be pro athletes!'
While tennis may not be routinely or overtly homophobic, tennis players have been known to be publicly antigay.
OutSports.com, a website dedicated to gays in sports, has enshrined retired Croatian player Goran Ivanisevic on its 'Anti-Gay' list for his liberal use of the word 'faggot,' most notably after an otherwise inspiring victory at Wimbledon in 2001. Articles attempting to dramatize the transformation of Andre Agassi from spandex-wearing oaf to philosophical family man frequently cite his remark that he was 'happy as a faggot in a submarine' after winning a French Open match as evidence of how far he's come. Notes Wertheim of both Ivanisevic's and Agassi's remarks, 'These were press conferences.' In other words: What must go on when the media isn't listening?