In 2000, the new City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality announced its goal of becoming ‘an African world-class city’, with increased prosperity and economic growth for all. Subsequent planning documents reiterated the tagline: ‘a world-class city, with service deliverables and efficiencies that meet world best practice’—‘a world-class African city for all’.footnote1 Who defines what ‘world-class’ means? The annual Global Cities report put out by estate agents Knight Frank conflates it with ‘global’, which in turn glorifies cities that prioritize profit-maximization and attracting talented professionals. The ‘global city’ rankings put out by the American management-consultancy firm A. T. Kearney rank urban conglomerates in terms of business activity, human capital, innovation and personal well-being. The key word is competition. ‘The race for global city status is accelerating’, enthuses atk. ‘While European cities prevail today, North American cities show greater potential, especially in innovation. And although top cities in China significantly outperform those in India, competition is tightening.’footnote2

The sporting metaphor is telling. ‘Catch up’, or competitive modernization, has a long history, from the ‘rise’ of would-be imperial powers in the nineteenth century to that of their former colonies in the mid-twentieth. But it has taken new forms in the era of globalization. In the 1960s and 70s, the rites of passage involved the national acquisition of steel plants and hydro-electric dams. Today, succeeding at the modernity game involves building a different sort of infrastructure—a high-rise financial district, or the spectacular architecture of a mega-sports stadium, to host international competitions. The principal player is no longer the nation as a whole but enclaves within it: the ‘central business district’ (cdb) of a city, plus what global real-estate agents call its ‘creative halo’. This typically involves the ‘hipsterification’ of a former industrial district, on the edge of the business area. As the agents explain:

The Creative Halo has transformed edge-of-cbd areas from cheap-rent backwaters into the driving force of the post-Lehman city economy. Cafés, shops, bars and street markets have followed the offices, leading to a surge in property demand in places like London’s Shoreditch, New York’s Brooklyn, and San Francisco’s soma district. While the trend began in the west, it is spreading to emerging-market cities, like Beijing.footnote3

The upshot of this vertiginously uneven development is the production of what we might define as different micro-spaces or ‘cultural time zones’ within the nation-state.

Fittingly, the international tennis circuit furnishes an example of the creation of a cultural time zone. The development of the game—from aristocratic pastime under Europe’s absolutist states to the ‘lawn tennis’ exported by imperial Britain and the international tournament in the age of tv—has involved increasing spatio-temporal standardization. From Japan to Morocco, Johannesburg to Melbourne, professional tennis today requires a whole infrastructure of highly regulated space. The courts—whether ‘hard’, grass or clay—must meet minutely specified standards. While the ball will still bounce differently, due to variations in altitude and temperature, the courts, the seating, the restroom facilities, the carbonated drinks for sale, the souvenirs and so forth all adhere to a particular ideal, breeding dull sameness that globalization theorists lament as the homogenization of the world. Thus, the tennis tour allows professional players to circulate globally while remaining inside a specific cultural time zone that is more or less the same everywhere. Even if the food in Chennai might be slightly spicier than what’s on offer in Cincinnati, the rules of the game and the basic infrastructure—a court with certain lines painted on it, a net of standard height—do not vary.