I am not a fan of tennis. The ‘punk-punk’ sound of the ball oscillating between players, overheard whilst reading the paper or writing a blog post in the same room as a television, is enough to induce boredom in me.
That’s not to say that I can’t appreciate that many people appear to feel a great love for the game, especially as I’m a fan of relaxing to snooker (although my penchant for this ‘sport’ is a direct result of having had nothing else to do at three o’clock in the morning post-waiting shift, and the joy of continual mental arithmetic), but rather that the attraction continues to elude me wholesale.
Living in the UK, and in London, it is impossible to avoid the fever, however obliquely it is experienced, that surrounds the Wimbledon Championships each and every year. People camp out on the streets to secure a centre court ticket, South West London suffers a strawberry shortage, and children everywhere search (generally in vain) for a public court on which to emulate these once-a-year heroes.
By far the most amusing element, however, is the panic with which the British greet an event that they otherwise purport to relish. For two weeks a year, it seems, our national self image is intimately related to the fortunes of a lone man in white shorts. And it always is a man, unfortunately; little if anything is widely reported concerning British women players, and certainly not with the fervour reserved for those in possession of a Y-chromosome.
For around ten years I watched from the sidelines as the dreams of a nation of 60 million were heaped on the shoulders of Tim Henman, who, despite carving out a great career for himself in the face of personal adversity (Henman has osteochondritis), could only have won a special place in their hearts along with the famed silver gilt cup. Henman was the son through which the British parent hoped to vicariously fulfil their dreams, but when he failed to boost their ego he was rendered little more than a genetic relation.
It seems to be a peculiarly British trait to need to affirm one’s own personal worth through the sporting achievements of others. In particular, I have never really understood how the England football team’s triumph over Germany in the 1966 FIFA World Cup could possibly still be something to shout about in the 21st Century. But in general, I fail to see why the achievement of someone to whom I have absolutely no personal connection should make me feel differently about myself, anyone I know or the country of which I happen to be a citizen.
However, if I were a fan, and my self esteem were affected by an athlete’s performance, I hope I would not do anything to increase the already significant pressure under which these people must find themselves. We can safely assume that they push themselves to be the best, and in many cases there is likely to be a significant element of parental exhortation. Then there’s the competition from their peers, who probably do everything they can to psych each other out and up. Do they really need an entire nation adding to this, simply because they have found themselves – for the most part, at least – incapable of realising their own ambitions?
There has been a lot of talk about ‘Britishness’ in recent years, wrapped up as it is with the immigration debate that continues – albeit in a very British way – to rage, fuelled by tabloid newspapers and the machinations of realpolitik. For my own part, I am very clear about what being British means, even though it is indefinable due to its constant evolution (as is every ‘nationality’). I am British and Britishness is me, plus 62 million other individuals, aggregated but not averaged. I am British because I was born in Britain, but that is just one small element of the glorious cacophony that is my persona. Unlike those who believe it is great simply to be British, I do not fear that my identity or that of the nation will not survive another sporting defeat, a change in the name and design of our currency, or the efficiency of Polish builders.
By making it clear that their wish is not only to see a British player win the Wimbledon, or any other, championship, but to have their Britishness reaffirmed by such a triumph, people run the very real risk that they themselves make its fulfilment less likely. Most of us will have experienced what it is like to enter a competition – the fear and anxiety, resulting in physical and mental stress. Now imagine what it would be like if you knew that the mental health of an entire country depended on your performance; how do you think you’d fare?
If I am to be subjected to background noise that induces a coma-like state, to have a portion of my licence fee subsidise the substantial television coverage, and to have to listen to colleagues wittering on about this fundamentally elite past time, I would appreciate it if those whom I live amongst could at least enjoy it for what it is. And that way, left to believe he is playing because he loves it and wants to be the best, not because he is a proxy for everyone else’s achievement, Mr Murray might even stand a chance.