Wimbledon: a festival of self-flagellation

You think Wimbledon is a sporting event? Actually it's a yearly reminder that Britons want to be winners but don't fancy the sacrifices involved.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Thank sweet Jesus for Jamie Murray. Not because his unexpected mixed doubles victory delivered us from years of tennis hurt (the truth is that mixed doubles is considered a bit of a joke), but because Murray’s success cut short the annual orgy of British self-loathing that now routinely accompanies Wimbledon.

Wimbledon used to be a simple tennis tournament. Today, however, like most other major sporting events, it’s merely an excuse for yet another soul-searching self-examination of our national character. If we’re not wringing our hands over Tim Henman’s latest heroic defeat, we’re bemoaning the poverty of homegrown talent, blaming the sedentary lifestyles of the PlayStation generation, beating ourselves up over the elitism of British tennis, or else apologising for the flag-waving jingoism of the hordes on Henman Hill. Yes, I know it’s rather gauche to applaud your opponent’s unforced errors, but the ‘barmy looking middle-aged trouts’ – as journalist Matthew Norman once described them – are essentially harmless creatures. There really isn’t a slippery slope which begins with the wearing of red, white and blue ‘Come on Tim’ hats and ends with the firebombing of Asian shops.

This year’s festival of national self-flagellation began before a single ball had been served in anger when Andy Murray, Jamie’s kid brother and Britain’s only real singles contender, withdrew through injury before the tournament. There was a brief outbreak of Henmania-lite when the British number two beat Carlos Moya in the first round, but few expected Tiger Tim to progress much further. Sure enough, by the end of the second round, all British interest in the singles tournaments had ended and a state of national mourning had been declared. This was, we were told, the worst British performance at Wimbledon for 17 years. British tennis is dead – that much everyone agrees on – but there are conflicting theories about the cause of death.

Is it that British tennis is too elitist? The usual gripe is that our tennis clubs are monopolised by the middle-class and the middle-aged at the expense of ‘yoof’. Former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash last week blasted the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) for spending £39million on the state-of-the-art National Tennis Centre in leafy Roehampton. ‘The LTA have only made themselves more elitist by developing a facility that no street kids can use’, complained Cash. The problem, however, is not that ‘the kids’ are being forcibly prevented from playing tennis; it’s that they’re simply not that interested. If tennis is elitist it is only so by default. Inner-city kids aren’t exactly banging on the doors of tennis clubs demanding to be let in.

Then there’s the standard excuse that Britain has too few indoor courts. That might be true, but are the facilities much better in Serbia or Russia whose tennis production lines churn out one world-class player after another? When you hear how Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic was forced to practice in a disused Belgrade swimming pool, the complaint about poor facilities in Britain does start to ring a little hollow. The fact is that there are plenty of public tennis courts in our cities. Some admittedly are dilapidated but others have been revamped. Crucially, however, most are deserted.

An alternative view is that there isn’t a lack of resources but a ‘culture of contentment’ fostered by Britain’s affluence. Is it true that our pampered players lack the hunger of the East Europeans? This was the tenor of Tim Henman’s uncharacteristic outburst last week. ‘I think for years we’ve been too accepting of mediocrity’, he said. ‘The players think that they’re entitled to have their coach paid for, with their coach’s salary, and their coach’s expenses paid for when they travel. That’s not reality. We’re very fortunate that the LTA has a lot of money that they’re able to invest. But there are a lot of players who don’t warrant that.’ Henman’s sentiments were echoed by LTA chief executive Roger Draper: ‘We have got to have more of a boot camp mentality, a boot camp regime. There’s been too much comfort for some players and not enough discomfort.’

The notion that sporting hunger is inextricably linked to material deprivation is attractive. But it doesn’t explain how an affluent country like France can produce a steady stream of world-class players. France has 15 men and 10 women in the top 100. Draper sees France as the model for British tennis to emulate and wants more children playing competitive tennis at an earlier age as currently happens in France. ‘We have roughly the same number of club members’, he says. ‘But we only have 10,000 juniors competing, and they’ve got 80,000. It’s a simple numbers game.’

Draper’s strategy sounds fine in theory, but I can see some formidable cultural obstacles in the way. In today’s therapeutic Britain we are uneasy about our children being exposed to competition at too early an age in case it damages their self-esteem or ruins their enjoyment of sport. Earlier this year the Give us Back our Game campaign was launched to liberate children’s football from the tyranny of hectoring coaches and pushy parents. ‘In a world where children can no longer play outside without supervision, parents and coaches have taken over’, explained Rick Fenoglio, one of the campaign organisers. ‘And the competitive drive adults bring to the game means youngsters no longer have time to fall in love with football, to play for fun and truly develop their skills.’

The demonisation of pushy parents is symptomatic of a culture which denigrates values, such as ultra-competitiveness, monkish self-denial and obsessive dedication, which are prerequisites of sporting excellence. We’d rather give losers a big hug than the bollocking they sometimes need. Yes, there are a few nutty tennis dads like Jim Pierce, father of Mary Pierce, who once screamed ‘Go on, Mary, kill the bitch!’ at his daughter’s opponent and was banned from the women’s tour for verbally abusing a spectator. But pushiness doesn’t equal abuse. Look behind today’s world-class tennis stars, like the Williams sisters, Marion Bartoli or Ana Ivanovic, and you’ll find a pushy parent who has coached, cajoled and driven their children to succeed from an early age. Some, like Maria Sharapova’s father, have been prepared to uproot their family and relocate to another country in order to have a shot at sporting success. In Britain, we frown on ambitious parents who drive their children too hard.

Does this make us a nation of sporting losers? Of course we’d much rather not be on the losing side. It’s just that we don’t quite fancy doing what it takes to produce winners.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist. He is speaking in the session Is Britain a nation of sporting losers? at the Battle of Ideas on 28 October.

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