I toss the ball and spin it out wide for an ace. My opponent smacks the side of her shoe with her racquet as we prepare to switch ends of the court, and in a moment of elation after two and a half hours of tennis, I yell, “Vamos!”
“Point penalty, Hanlon! No speaking in other languages!”
I’m not even halfway to my chair when I turn around to see a short, round, blue-shirted referee make a beeline toward me.
“I’m sorry, what?” I ask. “It’s 5-4 now, for me.” I look at my opponent for some sign of disagreement, but she looks confused, too. “You can’t say ‘bamos’ or whatever you said. You gotta speak English out here, not some other language.”
“What other language?” I ask. Surely there’s a mistake, I think in a panic. “Vamos” in Spanish means, “Come on.” It is universally understood. It is Rafa Nadal’s battle cry. More importantly, it’s my word, my battle cry. I’m half-Colombian on my mother’s side, and although I’m born and raised in the United States and fully bilingual, Spanish is my first language, still my default setting in moments of joy or stress.
I attempt to explain this to the referee, but he rebuffs me. “Outbursts in a language other than English are a two-point penalty,” he insists.
And just like that, I lose my hard-earned point, lose my lead and — when the match goes to a third-set tiebreak — I lose that, as well.
At the hotel that night, my mother pores through the USTA handbook until she finds the rule: If a player “engages in loud outbursts in a language that the official does not understand, the official should caution the player that further foreign language outbursts that are not understood by the official will be penalized under the Point Penalty System as unsportsmanlike conduct.”
“Did he caution you?” she drills me.
“He may have,” I say defensively. “I was just saying, ‘Vamos.’ What am I supposed to say?”
Beneath junior tennis’s veneer of gentility lies a layer of xenophobia unwittingly sanctioned by the U.S. Tennis Association, the national governing body for tennis and the leader in promoting and developing the sport’s growth on every level here. That includes the U.S. Open, which the USTA describes as “the crown jewel” of the professional game, though the ban on foreign languages doesn’t apply there or at other major tournaments — because the vast majority of players competing in the Open this week are not American, and their primary language is not English.
I trained all my life in Florida, which is widely considered ground zero for the top juniors in the world — where every tournament is like a big United Nations convention, with players muttering and shouting in every language imaginable.
Which is why the foreign language rule had escaped me.
That day in Michigan, I not only lost the match; I also lost a little bit of my innocence and my spontaneity on the court. When I spoke with the tournament director and pointed out that everyone knew what “vamos” meant, his answer was: “Not when I was growing up.”
Back home, we received the USTA’s formal Code of Conduct violation notice. I was being penalized for an “outburst in a foreign language.” The fact that the “foreign” language was my own, and that I was talking to myself, didn’t help my appeal. Acting foreign, it turned out, was a punishable offense for the USTA.
The message was clear: I was an intruder, and I wasn’t looked kindly upon.
After that, I tried hard to avoid saying anything to myself on the court, even in English. Although that was the only time I got a point penalty, I was also admonished on courts in Atlanta, St. Louis and Dayton, Ohio, for saying “Vamos,” to the point that before each match, I started announcing what the word meant, just in case I uttered it loud enough for anyone to hear. That took care of the external problem, at least.
My tennis game itself never changed. I kept playing — I loved it, and what I wanted more than anything was to be a college tennis player. But I no longer pumped my fist in the air after winning a point, and I no longer smiled to myself in triumph. I was a wall of stone, cold and emotionless. The words that first come to my mind in an emotional moment are Spanish words, and I couldn’t risk letting them out.
My mother, too, stopped saying “Vamos,” to root me on, after parents told her she couldn’t cheer in another language. In Atlanta, a Latino referee told her: “Please don’t speak Spanish. They don’t like us here as it is.”
It was only after I got sanctioned for speaking in Spanish that I started hearing others’ stories as well. The practice wasn’t widespread but it did happen, and Latino players would tell each other about similar episodes. Why didn’t we complain? We all were looking for college scholarships. No one wanted to rock the boat or to accumulate sanctions that would get us suspended from the circuit and affect rankings.
I called the USTA this month. They still enforce the rule, because an outburst that is not understood is considered unsportsmanlike conduct, even if a player is talking to him or herself.
As for me, I think penalizing players for being different is far more unsportsmanlike.
This story has been updated to clarify that the 2013 match was in the quarterfinals of the consolation bracket, not the main draw, of the tournament in Kalamazoo.