Jean-Julien Rojer used his wardrobe to make a political statement at the U.S. Open on Friday, when he and tennis partner Horia Tecau beat Feliciano López and Marc López, 6-4, 6-3, to earn the men’s doubles title. The 36-year-old Dutchman, wearing a neon yellow shirt superimposed with the face of the Statue of Liberty, told spectators in his on-court, postmatch interview that his outfit was inspired by events in Charlottlesville last month that resulted in the death of a counterprotester.
“It’s promoting peace and freedom and liberty,” Rojer said, referring to a rally last month in Charlottesville that included white supremacists marching on the city holding torches, and violent skirmishes that resulted between marchers and counterprotesters. Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville, was killed when a car barreled into a crowd of counterprotesters.
“I’ve been wearing [this message] all around,” Rojer continued. “I have a Lady Liberty jacket and I have another one that has a bunch of people locked in arms in a civil rights march, so yeah, hopefully we’re moving in that direction.”
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 8, 2017
The Curaçao native said he first traveled to the United States when he was 12 years old. And while he didn’t mention President Trump by name, Rojer appeared to allude to the administration’s controversial travel ban that sought to ban or limited entry of individuals from six Muslim-majority nations.
“I’m happy that they let me in and I’ve gotten to do my job here,” he said, calling the United States a “great country.”
“Hopefully we will create those opportunities for everybody,” he said as the crowd cheered.
Some of the biggest cheers from the audience came to the shirt designer himself, Anthony Law, who according to New York Times tennis correspondent Ben Rothenberg pumped his fist while Rojer spoke.
“What I thought symbolized everything which is good about this country is the Statue of Liberty: that wonderful, welcoming statue you see when you come in,” Law, who is from Britain, told Rothenberg. “Liberty, freedom, peace and love: That’s what it should be about.”
While Rojer’s doubles partner Tecau didn’t wear the specially designed shirt, he said he agreed with Rojer’s message during the postmatch news conference.
“I think that message needs to be passed on constantly,” he said, according to the Times. “I think as role models for the generations that are behind us, the young generation, it’s important to see that as well. … We’re not just athletes competing for Slams and prize money and glory.”
Athletes taking public political stances or sides on social issues isn’t new. While somewhat rare in the tennis world, it’s not unheard of. Most famously, perhaps, the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have spoken openly about racism and sexism. Andy Murray, too, has derided sexism, although most of his comments are confined to the problem within the sport.
Perhaps the most poignant social commentary has come from retired American tennis pro James Blake, who was forced into addressing the issue of race in the United States when he was tackled to the ground in 2015 by an undercover officer with the New York Police Department as he stood waiting for a car. The officer had mistaken Blake, whose father is black, for another man who allegedly stole committed credit-card fraud. The incident inspired Blake, 37, to pen a book about sports and activism, “Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together.”
Speaking at his postmatch news conference on Friday, Rojer, whose father is also black, said his goal was to get “the conversation going.”
“This isn’t just tennis,” he said (via the Times). “We deal with real-life issues out there. And especially, I think it’s symbolic to be here, man. This is New York City.”