Friday, July 2, 2010

Great Expectations: Part Two

Well, England's World Cup dreams are in tatters (© Every single tabloid newspaper). Despite the controversy of the 'goal that never was' - which seemed to be karma for the 'goal that never was but was' in 1966 - England were comprehensively outplayed by a young and fearless German team, who made us look old and past it. As usual, the manager is the one copping the flak, even though this group of players has failed to live up to expectations under three managers now. Personally, that's where I think the problem lies: expectations. The Premier League is awash with money, foreign stars, pulsating, helter skelter football which makes for good TV. Unfortunately for England it is low on homegrown players with technical ability and game intelligence, as well as too long and arduous. Yet we still believe we can win, despite mounting evidence each major tournament to the contrary.

The amount of sporting expectation in this country, and therefore pressure heaped on to our sportsmen and women, is enormous. Part of this stems from the knowledge that we invented many of the world's sports, and so, ipso facto, we should be the best. It's a bizarre argument. Yet the frenzy, the desire for a national sporting saviour is very real. And no one feels it more keenly than our tennis players when Wimbledon comes around.

Actually make that player, singular. Andy Murray to give him a name. A British man has not won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936 (I knew that fact without having to Google, so often is it repeated, and despite tennis being down my list of favourite sports. It's down quite a few other people's too. We Brits tend only to get interested in tennis during the Wimbledon fortnight, which makes the expectation even more intense - and ludicrous: how can a nation that spends two weeks a year interested in a sport, hope to produce a stable of champions? It's a bit like reading one crime novel a year and thinking you can master the genre.) Ever since I can remember, the search has been on for a tennis champion. It has been a quest laden with woe and tribulation.

When I was younger, our best shot was Jeremy Bates, a grass court specialist with the air of an home counties accountant. He never had a realistic chance, but caused the odd ripple of patriotic fervour when he reached the last eight.

Next was 'Tiger' Tim Henman, a grass court specialist with the air of an home counties solicitor. A certain golfer carries the nickname Tiger pretty well. Meanwhile, 'Tiger Tim' (Jeremy, Timothy, sorry these are not the names of champions, these are the names of your first girlfriend's dad - or cracking crime writers who divide their time between LA, Bangkok and Cambodia...) just made him sound like he should be on a cereal box. Henman was actually a good player, and did extraordinary well to reach a couple of Grand Slam semi-finals, where unfortunately his scone-loving, public school educated backside was inevitably kicked by a streetfighting, consonant-laden east European hewn by years of struggle. Each time he went deep at Wimbledon, nice young gels from the shires would be pictured draped in the Union Jack, the tabloids would pronounce 'This is it!' and a nation's expectation would be heaped on to Henman. Then when he lost people would label him a choker, forgetting that he was simply a good player who had done damn well to get as far as he did.

Henman eventually retired, to be replaced as the next white hope by Andy Murray. Murray had a bit of an image problem. He was Scottish for a start, and once joked, like most Scots, that when it came to football he supported Anyone but England, which caused a few cream teas to be dropped in shock. He was, and still is, brattish, occasionally moody and volatile, prone to swearing and racket throwing in moments of frustration - Tim probably did once say 'golly' as a serve screamed past his pressed whites at 150mph but he I'm sure apologised afterwards. Pressure also means little to Murray. He went to Dunblane primary school, and was in it the day Thomas Hamilton broke in and and shot and killed 16 young children and an adult, and injured many more before turning the gun on himself. A few people getting hot and bothered over their £15 strawberries and cream isn't likely to bother him. (He would subscribe to what is one of my favourite all time quotes by legendary Aussie cricketer and raconteur Keith MIller, who fought in Word War II. He was once asked about the pressure of sport. 'Pressure?' he said. 'I'll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing cricket is not.') Murray also said he prefers the atmosphere and conditions at the US Open to stuffy old Wimbledon, which is tantamount to heresy. He's also a winner. He has reached the finals of the US and Australian Open, both times losing to an on-song Roger Federer, and has won numerous tournaments. More clued up judges than I believe it is only a matter of time before he claims a major title.

Because he's a winner, the press and public have been willing to overlook the tantrums and sulks, the expletives and sullenness. On his part, he has grown to like the crowds at Wimbledon and once he even smiled, but that may just have been wind from all those bananas they eat between games. Today he plays a semi-final against Rafa Nadal, muscular clay court mountain, second best player in the world, and tournament favourite now Federer has been dumped out. All the bunting that was taken down after England's footballers humbling exit is back up, and a nation will once again gird its loins, gather round television screens and hope for a tonic to lift the rather flat mood that has settled across the country since the election of the increasingly awful Coalition Government. If Murray wins, he's a national hero. Should he lose, he's a truculent Scot.

As I indicated last week, for such an old country, there's still alot of growing up to do.




  1. Well the truculent Scot lost.

    Have to stop these sport-related blogs. I'm the kiss of bloody death.

    But we're all Dutch now! Schmoke and pancakesh all round...

  2. I'm quite relieved he's not got through Dan... it has prevented World War Three in our household, what with my wife being Czech !

  3. This is so guy.

    I'm a guy, and it feels way guy even to me.

    On the other hand, if it were about baseball . . .