Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read MoreRead More
The U.S. Open Climate Protest Was Annoying. It Also Worked.
Why I changed my mind about the disruption to the tennis tournament.
For a protest to work, it has to be understood.
By this metric, the protesters who interrupted the women’s singles semifinal of the U.S. Open on Thursday night — including one man who glued his bare feet to the floor of Arthur Ashe stadium — had, at least at first, failed. More than 10 minutes into the protest, even after Coco Gauff and Karolina Muchova had left the court to wait out the interruption, retired tennis legend Chris Evert, commentating for ESPN, wondered what the people yelling wanted. “Maybe they’re drunk,” she mused.
Once the protesters’ purpose (and shirts reading “end fossil fuels”) became clear, I couldn’t help but be confused. This U.S. Open has been a famously miserable experience for players and spectators alike, thanks to stifling temperatures that have driven players to take cold showers mid-match and shove courtside tubes blowing cold air down their shirts. The impacts of climate change on tennis couldn’t be clearer than they already are, I figured. Why force the players and spectators to feel those impacts for longer by interrupting a match?
So I came into work on Friday feeling fully opposed to the protest. “Those shirts are going to do it,” I sarcastically texted a friend. “We fixed climate change, everybody.”
And then I saw the Coco Gauff video.
“I believe in climate change,” Gauff said at a press conference after the match. “I 100% believe there are things we could do better.”
Extinction Rebellion, the group behind the protest, said in a press release they weren’t trying to protest against the sport of tennis or even against the emissions that had brought players and spectators to the tournament — instead, they wanted to bring people’s attention to the urgency of climate change.
Gauff’s reaction proves they succeeded. Before the protest, players had complained, often, about the heat. Daniil Medvedev, winner of the 2021 U.S. Open and third seed in the men’s draw this year, turned to a camera at one point during his match against Andrey Rublev to mutter a warning that a player would die. The weather was top of mind for everyone. But climate change? Up until the Gauff interview, the phrase had barely, if ever, come up.
The protestors were annoying (“kick them out,” spectators chanted as police and medical personnel tried to figure out how to remove the man who had glued his feet to the ground; “[expletive] right off, glue boy,” I texted my friend). But for players like Gauff, who at 19 years old is only just at the start of her career, the threat of climate change is too real to ignore, and far more disturbing than a momentary interruption of play.
“Moments like this are history-defining moments,” Gauff said after the match. “If that’s what they felt they needed to do to get their voices heard, I can’t really get upset at it.”