Liberty on His Mind, Doubles Champion Seizes Opportunity at the Mike

This article was published by The New York Times

After Jean-Julien Rojer won his second Grand Slam men’s doubles title on Friday, a question about his Statue of Liberty shirt seemed obvious and innocuous.

Rojer, who partnered with Horia Tecau to beat Feliciano López and Marc López, 6-4, 6-3, in the United States Open final, was not the first player to wear New York-inspired imagery on his shirt. Radek Stepanek has worn several shirts with skyline designs, which he said curried favor with the New York crowd.

But wearing the Statue of Liberty shirt was not a superficial gesture, Rojer told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi during the trophy ceremony.

“The idea came after the tragic incident in Charlottesville, and we came up with this line,” Rojer said. “It’s promoting peace and freedom and liberty.”

Last month in Charlottesville, white supremacists rallied against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. Amid skirmishes between demonstrators and counterprotesters, a woman was struck and killed by a car.

“I’ve been wearing it all around,” he added. “I have the Lady Liberty jacket, and I have another one that has a bunch of people locked in arms — a civil rights march. Hopefully we’re moving in that direction.”

Rojer, who was born in Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles, invoked his own experience as an immigrant to the United States, having moved to Florida at 12 to better pursue his tennis ambitions.

“It’s a great country, and I’m happy that they let me in and that I got to do my job here,” Rojer said. “Hopefully, we will create those opportunities for everybody.”

The unexpected message was warmly received by the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Anthony Law, the founder of Gunn Athletic, Rojer’s clothing sponsor, pumped his fist as Rojer spoke.Law had designed the shirt, which had to be in the same neon-yellow-and-black color palette as Tecau’s Mizuno shirt, to capture Rojer’s message about America in a positive, universal way.

“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,” said Law, who is British. “Liberty, freedom, peace and love: That’s what it should be about.”

In his news conference, Rojer acknowledged that tennis players rarely spoke out about political matters.

“On the political side of things, I don’t know how much the tennis world gets into it, but I just wanted to have the conversation going,” he said. “Promoting again, just freedom and justice, liberty for everybody.”

He added: “This isn’t just tennis. We deal with real-life issues out there. And especially, I think it’s symbolic to be here, man. This is New York City.”

Rojer said he particularly appreciated getting praise for his outfit from a New York firefighter.

He grew up with a black father and a white mother in Curaçao, but said that the “first time I noticed color was when I came to the U.S. — sad to say that.”

Rojer said he felt an obligation, even with his limited platform as a doubles player, to use the microphone to spread a message of inclusivity when he had the chance.

“I think that message needs to be passed on constantly,” he said.

Tecau added that all athletes had an obligation to be examples.

“I think as role models for the generations that are behind us, the young generation, it’s important to see that as well,” Tecau said. “We’re not just athletes competing for Slams and prize money and glory.”

Law said he believed Rojer had a sense of security that many athletes may not feel from larger corporate sponsors.

“If a sports person says something, they’re attacked,” Law said. “Like Colin Kaepernick: You stand up for something you think is just, but then it affects your career, your earnings? It shouldn’t be like that.”