John McEnroe plays tennis match on Serengeti despite bloody conflict over beautiful land

John McEnroe left his mark on the Serengeti.

In a tennis match played amid roaming wildlife in Tanzania, McEnroe, the seven-time Grand Slam winner, unleashed one of his signature outbursts Tuesday during an exhibition against his brother brother Patrick. It was been advertised as the first tennis match on the Serengeti.

The event is part of an eight-day, tennis-themed safari in Tanzania that started Friday and has drawn criticism from activists like Anuradha Mittal.

Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute think tank, said the exhibition tennis match and the safari amount to ‘’sportswashing.’’ The fame of the McEnroe brothers and sports, Mittal said, are being used to hide “travesty on the ground.’’

Specifically, Mittal cited the Tanzanian government’s efforts to gain control of land used by the Massai, a semi-nomadic tribe of indigenous people, to graze cattle and grow crops like kale, onions and tomatoes. The government's stated goal is wildlife conservation, and part of that land in northern Tanzania is used for big-game hunting and safaris that generate money for the government.

McEnroe did not respond to interview requests made through the company organizing the safari, his tennis academy and his agent, Gary Swain.

“John doesn’t want to get into the politics,’’ Swain told USA TODAY Sports. “This is a goodwill tour.’’

But McEnroe talked about the trip in early 2023 during a group interview with journalists.

“I’m excited and hopefully it’ll add some interest to our sport (in) Africa,’’ he said during the videotaped interview. “That’s long been a goal for all of us involved in tennis and hopefully this will move the needle in that respect.’’

Brutality on the Serengeti

The sun sets on giraffes of the Serengeti.
The sun sets on giraffes of the Serengeti.

Conflict over the land has turned bloody, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Those two organizations have issued reports this year that include allegations of violence against the Maasai who refuse to leave the lucrative land.

Those among the estimated 100 people traveling with the McEnroe brothers have paid up to $27,000 apiece to watch animals roam across the Serengeti, mingle with John and Patrick and watch them play tennis. A portion of the guest fees will go to the  Johnny Mac Tennis Project, a 501c3 that provides opportunities for youth to play tennis in his hometown of New York.

Money from tourism taxes will go to the government under scrutiny for its treatment of the Maasai.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel advisory for Tanzania that included the following: “The country does not recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples or those who self-identify as Indigenous. Indigenous persons may face forcible evictions from traditionally Indigenous lands for conservation or development efforts.”

That same year, a United Nations forum on indigenous matters issued a statement calling on the Tanzanian government to "immediately cease efforts to evict'' 70,000 Maasai people and noted reports of arbitrary arrests and indiscriminate use of firearms by the Tanzanian police during the eviction efforts.

Defending the tennis safari

Carl Shephard is co-founder of Insider Expeditions, the boutique travel company organizing Epic Tanzania. For several years, according to Shephard, he has been working with John McEnroe on a potential trip and looking for the ideal setting before selecting Tanzania.

“It’s a beautiful place and John McEnroe is a big environmentalist,’’ Shephard said. McEnroe went on a previous safari in Tanzania with his wife, Patty Smyth, according to McEnroe's agent.

Shephard spoke enthusiastically about the conservation of the wildlife refuge, climate change and wellness while declining to talk about conflict over land inhabited by the Maasai.

“We are not a political organization,’’ he said. “We see both tourism and sports as a bridge builder.’’

Video of the match showed Maasai in attendance and engaged in music and dance as Patrick McEnroe joined the drummers.

Over the past two years, Shephard said he reached out to all stakeholders while putting together the safari.

"We did three or four site visits in advance of this and met with not only government officials but with elders and chiefs of local tribes,'' he said, "and basically asked them if they wanted us to do this, what they thought about this trip, if this would be a good idea, if they’d like to join. Everybody said yes on both sides.’’

The Tanzanian president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was scheduled to attend a welcoming dinner for safari attendees. Neemo Seneto Seki, a member of the Maasai community who said she's involved in the effort to protect human rights, expressed hope the tennis match between the McEnroe brothers will create productive dialogue between government officials and the indigenous people.

“I think the trip might have a positive impact,’’ she wrote via WhatsApp.

But Mittal, who said she's been working with the Maasai since 2016, suggested there was no meaningful support based on her learning about the safari and tennis match from members of the Maasai community.

“Oh, the communities are very upset,’’ she said.

Building a tennis court on the Serengeti

The tennis court was assembled in a match of days with the necessary materials shipped in from China, according to Shephard.

“It’s a synthetic court that’s (manufactured) to international standards that is produced and designed in China,’’ said Shephard, adding, “It is a professional, international-grade court.’’

The assembly was expected to begin last Friday and take about three days to complete, according to Shephard, who said the court will be taken down after the event and "leave no trace in the sort of pop-up environment of the wildness.’’

Site selection involved input from environmentalists, according to Shephard, who said they settled on property at the Four Seasons that already was slated for commercial use and the least disruptive option for the animals.

“We are not in direct path of any sort of regular animal movement,’’ said Shephard, but he added, “animals are roaming freely and it’s sort of a wow experiment.’’

What impact will John McEnroe have?

John McEnroe and his brother Patrick are hosting a tennis safari on the Serengeti.
John McEnroe and his brother Patrick are hosting a tennis safari on the Serengeti.

On Instagram, photos show Tanzanian children playing tennis on makeshift dirt courts in areas outside the Serengeti. Shephard said there are standard tennis courts, too.

“We’re working on cleaning some of them up,'' he said, "making the courts even better than ones that exist.''

People on the safari will have a chance to play tennis every day and there will be interaction with Tanzanian youth, Shephard said. The McEnroe brothers made good on that promise.

And while the most popular sports in Tanzania are soccer and boxing, according to the African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania, tennis clearly is getting a boost.

The Citizen, an English newspaper in Tanzania, reported last month the International Tennis Federation (ITF) has promised to build a world-class tennis academy in Tanzania. The ITF, listed as among more than a dozen "proud partners'' of the Epic Tanzania involving the McEnroe brothers, did not respond to requests for comment USA TODAY made by email.

Jules Schroeder, chief of staff of the company organizing Epic Tanzania, said the goal is for the McEnroe brothers, their exhibition tennis match and the eight-day journey on the Serengeti to make a lasting, positive impact.

“I hope that that message gets portrayed out there, because sometimes it's easy to look at Instagram and, like, oh, a bunch of rich white people are coming to Africa to build a tennis court,'' she said. "We’ve heard all of it as things have evolved. And those that actually have gotten to know the project more are really excited.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why was John McEnroe accused of 'sportswashing' on the Serengeti?