© Ella Ling

Aravane Rezai

Satan's Game and Lawn Tennis Diplomacy with Iran


“Satan’s Game” is how the ayatollahs in Iran once described tennis, regarding the sport as capitalist, decadent and pro-American.

That was back when Mansour Bahrami had thwarted ambitions of becoming a professional tennis player, and the biggest concession by the ayatollahs was to allow domestic players to hold what was known as the Revolutionary Cup (there was the risk that the Revolutionary Guard would interrupt matches with beatings on the court). But then confirmation came: tennis was the enemy of the Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

These days, the People’s Republic or Iran still find themselves pitched against the West, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague suggesting that the Iranian nuclear programme could result in another Cold War. Yet Tehran’s stance has softened: there are ten Iranian men with world singles rankings (even if all of them are outside the top 1,000), a low-level men’s tournament has been held in the country for home and international players. And a past promotional video for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad included a shot of him receiving the gift of some rackets from Aravane Rezai, a former top-20 player who holds French and Iranian passports. You know that was a significant moment because Iranian exiles in France criticised Rezai for having anything to do with a regime which George W Bush included in his Axis of Evil (Iraq and North Korea were the others).

Females representing Iran have competed in the Muslim Women’s Games, with Rezai winning gold for Iran. You can tell a lot about a country’s relationship with the West by looking at their attitude towards tennis: the Chinese once thought that tennis was bourgeois, and now they have Li Na, a grand slam champion and the woman who could encourage a whole generations of racket-swingers. 

It would be naive, of course, to believe that Iran’s view of tennis is similar to that held by David Cameron, a keen player who had tea with Novak Djokovic at Downing Street this month. When Rezai won that gold in the Muslim Women’s games, it was in front of a single-sex, ladies-only audience. But there is some common ground here between Tehran and London and Washington. In the 1970s we had Ping Pong Diplomacy, the exchange of table tennis players between America and China which in some way helped to improve relations between the nations. Is there anything to be gained from Lawn Tennis Diplomacy, from sending a couple of Andys, Britain’s Murray and America’s Roddick, out to Tehran with their rackets and some put-on smiles? 

No one should think that Maria Sharapova just plays at being the fashionista. Here she is talking about the inspiration she found from sitting in the front row at New York Fashion Walk: “I’m putting the finishing touches on my fall-winter 2012 Cole Haan collection. The use of a neutral colour palette that Vera Wang showcased in her show – grey and blush – is found in my Cole Haan collection. In thinking about the spring-summer 2013 for Cole Haan, I found the use of embellishment at the Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta shows, and the lace detailing at Rodarte, to be very directional.”

  • http://twitter.com/anna_tennisfan Anna L

    Only if you want them held as captives in a basement in Tehran…