“Are you guys all trying to kill our kids?”
The woman laughed nervously as she said it, clearly regretting her knee-jerk reaction as soon as the undeniably racist words were out of her mouth. But there they were, hanging in the air after Fazal Syed—a Muslim, Indian-born former professional tennis player—answered the prying woman’s questions about where he was born and what religion he practiced.
He’d been making small talk with the woman on a flight out of Philly one winter day in 2015, en route to a coaching conference in Florida, and had just helped her teen son load his luggage into the overhead compartment—hardly a murderous act.
“I’m brown and I have a beard,” Syed says, addressing the superficial cues that often trigger others’ latent tendencies to discriminate. “And here was this woman from Bucks County who was an engineer and was going to her second home in Florida, and she just had no clue,” Syed recalls. But instead of recusing himself from further conversation, which would have been understandable, Syed chose to engage further.
“In tennis, the score always starts at love-all. So I feel the ‘game’ of life should start with that too,” Syed says.
“We wound up having a really meaningful talk about what news sources she turned to, how many other Muslim people she’d actually met in her life and other stereotypes she’d held onto,” Syed says. As the flight landed, Syed extended an invitation for his seat mate and her family to visit his mosque any time, to learn more about it.
The interaction stayed with Syed, and soon thereafter he shared the details of it with a dear friend, Courtenay Willcox, who’d known Syed since he first emigrated to the U.S. in 1995. The friends decided to arrange visits for their fellow congregants between Syed’s Valley Forge mosque and Willcox’s Presbyterian church in Bryn Mawr. It was there that Syed met Abby Stamelman Hocky, founder and executive director of Interfaith Philadelphia, the nonprofit that bloomed in the wake of 9/11 to fuel interfaith understanding and relationships—and whose work, in 2019, may just be more important than ever.
“I found out Abby was a tennis player, and before I knew it, I said, ‘Hey listen, I’d love to do something with tennis and Interfaith Philadelphia—would you want that?’” She and her organization did—and so began Love ALL: Get on Court, Build Bridges, Connect Hearts, a fundraiser that invites tennis lovers of all skill levels to join Syed and professional coaches from around the region for a day of adult and children’s clinics, and to cheer on an exhibition match between coaches.
The third annual event, on Sunday, September 15, at Westtown School in West Chester, will be emceed by the Sixers’ Archie Berwick, and feature the Sixers Dunk Squad. “Sport is life and life is sports,” Syed likes to say; partnering with other local teams, he feels, sends the message that sports of all kinds help bring people together.
“Sport is life and life is sports,” Syed likes to say; partnering with other local teams, he feels, sends the message that sports of all kinds help bring people together.
The director of Westtown’s tennis program, Syed also runs a tennis coaching business called Level 7 Tennis, a nod to seven virtues he learned of while exploring Islam on his own after 9/11: wisdom, knowledge, courage, industry, courtesy, compassion and the capacity to be known for your contribution. But he takes no proceeds from the day’s events; everything goes directly to Interfaith Philadelphia, whose offerings range from collaborative community arts programs and tours of local places of worship to alternative spring breaks for students, workplace diversity trainings and more. Last year’s event raised $18,000, and this year the goal is $20,000. (The first 76 registrants will get a Sixers hat and T-shirt.)
What Syed does get out of the day, he says, is something greater: the opportunity to use his platform for something meaningful.
“In tennis, the score always starts at love-all. So I feel the ‘game’ of life should start with that, too,” he says. “Through tennis, I’ve been fortunate to travel the world, I’ve played with people from all over the world”—one of his most successful mixed-doubles partnerships was, fittingly, with the Israeli tennis player Ofer Sela—“and interacting with different people helps drive away the fear that comes from ignorance.”Photo courtesy Amanda Maher