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 couldnt 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 Franciscos 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 havent 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 Tildens 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 Amlie Mauresmo. Mauresmo, a former world number 1, isnt exactly out loud and proud in the media, but shes 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. Im surprised that a male player hasnt come out. Its 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 arent 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 Johns charity events. Roddick or Andre Agassi wouldnt not hire someone because of his sexual orientation, she claims.
Croatian player Ivan Ljubicic seems to prove Navratilovas point. Ranked number 3 in 2006, Ljubicic is also president of the tours player council. Id be really surprised and shocked if someone had a problem with a [gay player]. Were an international tour, we have all races. If theres 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 Couriers words, an initial shock wave, but then the tour would adapt, and everyone would move on.
So whats the holdup? Just ask Justin Gimelstob.
I think Jon Wertheim is utopian in his thought process. I think theres a 100% chance that [a player who comes out] would be an outcast and wouldnt be signing a deal for Viagra or Trojans, says Gimelstob, a 31-year-old American player who retired last fall. The New Jerseyborn 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 couldnt be a more homophobic place, he says. Were not gay-bashing. Theres just a lot of positive normal hetero talk about pretty girls and working out and drinking beer. Thats 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 hes come. Notes Wertheim of both Ivanisevics and Agassis remarks, These were press conferences. In other words: What must go on when the media isnt listening?
In the mid 1990s, a graduate of the University of Southern Californias powerhouse tennis program spotted Francisco -- then just out of high school -- at a small tournament in South America. One connection led to another, and he jumped at a scholarship to play for a Southeastern Conference school. He didnt just want to get an education and play top-level tennis. He wanted to come out of the closet. I knew that I was gay and living in a country where that wouldnt be possible. Its dangerous. People get murdered for being gay.
Little did Francisco know that playing serious college tennis in the Deep South wasnt exactly happy hour in the West Village. Homophobic slurs were commonplace on campus, among his tennis
teammates, and even on the green rectangle of the tennis court. People at other schools would say mean things, like You fucking faggot. Thats one of the first things they say to an opponent. People would come behind the court and try to bug you. With other players it was a racial slur or you fat ass. They called me Barbie because I had long blond hair.
The harassment didnt keep Francisco from becoming a star. With his aggressive baseline game, anchored by whizzing inside-out forehands and superaccurate passing shots, he finished twice in the nations top five, earning him all-American status. He had wins over U.S. players who would later have respectable pro careers such as Robby Ginepri and Brian Vahaly, as well as competitive matches against James Blake and his brother Thomas. [The homophobia] didnt hurt. I was trained to be mentally tough. Ive been playing tennis my whole life. You have to be able to play competitively, Francisco says. I was able to block it out, but I still heard it.
He heard it well enough to know that coming out as one of the universitys star athletes would be impossible. I wanted to be out, but I never acted on [my sexual feelings], he says. I was too pressured. I concentrated on tennis and school.
When Francisco moved to Atlanta and turned pro, little changed. He stayed in the closet. His career flourished. On the Challenger circuit -- the pro tours minor leagues -- he reached eight finals and won two of them. He nabbed 10 doubles titles.
Successful enough to have a seat at pro tenniss movable feast, Francisco traveled the globe, occasionally hanging with superstars like Andy Roddick and Anna Kournikova. The highlight of Franciscos career was an upset win over Brazil in the Davis Cup, thanks in part to Franciscos fifth-set 119 victory on clay -- his worst surface -- over a player ranked 200 places higher. It was indescribable. He had the whole stadium behind him. Winning a match youre not supposed to win -- theres no feeling like it in the world, he says.
Over the years, however, traveling and living solo took its toll. Francisco traveled to world capitals to play tennis but never visited gay bars. Coming out to his tennis buddies was unthinkable. If [an openly gay player] wanted to practice with other players, they would say, No thanks, I dont want to be associated with you, because people would think they were gay also, he says. One pro tennis insider isnt surprised by Franciscos assessment. The locker room can be a lonely place. For all the
camaraderie, it can be isolating, he says. [A gay player] is always going to be subject to snide comments. Naked bodies are
involved. You know, there are still people who think you can get AIDS off a toilet seat.
Francisco says just being suspected of being gay means hearing homophobic comments on court. During the heat of battle -- as a last resort -- opponents, when they get irritated, go to that. They would call me faggot or sissy. How did they know he was gay? They didnt -- but he never had a girlfriend and never talked about girls. Tennis players like to have a girlfriend there all the time, he says.
According to Francisco, being gay is also a potential competitive disadvantage. This is the talk in the locker room: If a male player has to play a guy who is [perceived to be] gay, they automatically
assume he is weak and they have a mental advantage. When they see who they are playing, they say, Oh, hes a sissy, you cant lose to him, he says.
The idea riles Ljubicic. Thats ridiculous. No pro needs extra motivation to win a match. If I play against black, white, Chinese, gay, Im not looking for extra motivation, he says.
Francisco may have been deeply closeted as a pro, but there is plenty of titillating gossip about male players who have had same-sex hotel room trysts or lovers traveling as masseurs. As any mildly obsessive gay male fan knows, tantalizing rumors surround a hunky American player once ranked inside the top 20. He was very attractive, muscular, the epitome of a gay pinup. Everyone kind of knew he was gay from the way he talked -- he wasnt hiding it. I remember him in line for lunch with his boyfriend, one source says.
Another former number 1 American player was thought to play both sides of the net. Very rarely, the media takes up these kinds of rumors. Last year the French magazine Le Point asked French businessman Arnaud Lagardre to comment on a rumor that he was having an affair with a current top 10 player, the boyish Richard Gasquet. Lagardre vigorously denied it, as did Gasquet in a press conference after a match at a tournament in Monte Carlo. Nonetheless, rumors about Gasquet persist.
Even if gay tennis fans are forced to live on scraps of gossip, there is one place where gay males and tennis might be a comfortable reality: college. The United States has changed a great deal in the decade or so since Francisco endured homophobic taunts on university courts. At a handful of schools, tennis players and coaches have played through the closet door.
In 2005, Matthew Coin came out to his tennis teammates during his senior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Positive things came out of it and no negative ones, says Coin. From the moment I came out, they gave me incredible support. Kyle Wagner played tennis for California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in 2002 and 2003 and came out to his teammates shortly after he graduated. They loved it -- they had no problems with it at all, Wagner says. I was worked up over it being this big thing, and they said, We kind of figured.
In 2002, Sean Burns, a coach at Santa Clara University, came out to his players. Again, the experience was overwhelmingly supportive. We were running in the gym, says Burns, and there was a junior who came in last. He was mad at himself, so he said fuckin faggot to himself. About four players said Shut your fuckin mouth.
Says Courier, Im speculating here, but times have changed. Todays youth seem to have shifted toward being more accepting.
Which is one reason that eventually a professional male tennis player will likely come out. Courier says its a question of when, not if. Navratilova says it will happen before 2010.
Collegiate openness is already affecting professional tennis. After he quit the pro tour, Francisco began coming out to friends. Through gay tennis networks, he met Coin. He was very supportive. We talked a lot, Francisco says.
Today he is out and 100% happier. He doesnt have a boyfriend but has no trouble attracting male admirers to practices and the occasional small pro tournament he plays. He may not be Billie Jean King yet, but in his own way hes helping destroy the wall between gay men and professional sports -- and sports in general. I want the association of gay with sissy gone, he says. I would love to show that gay people can be great athletes.