The will to win - otherwise known as the will to be a complete pain

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The Independent Culture
I think I know when tennis, and perhaps all sport, turned bad. I think it was the time Jimmy Connors started to make a fight of it in the fourth set of his first Wimbledon final against Bjorn Borg. Don't ask me what year that was. It doesn't behove a grown man to remember dates in sport. But it was when the Will to Win rose like a monster from the black depths of the Sea of Human Greed, crying "Me! Me! Give me!" - give and me being the only words in its vocabulary.

We should of course have pushed it back there and then and nuked the ocean in which it lived. But we are transfixed by any will more powerful than our own. Show us someone who wants a thing even more badly than we do and we drop to our knees as though a God has come among us. Around grounds and courts all over the world young men actually perform the ceremony of obeisance, painting their faces, wrapping themselves in tribal flags and bowing low. All hail. I go cold when I see it, joke as it is meant to be. Because there would have been those who laughed in Nuremberg as well, even as they were giving the salute.

That was the moment, anyway, when the autism of not knowing when you're beaten entered sport - Jimmy's fightback against Borg. He did something strange with his body. Or his body did something strange with him. It spasmed. In any other context we would have said this was a man having a fit. It spasmed, twisted, made fists of his fingers and pistons of his arms, pumping the sticky bile of self-belief up from his feet where it had coagulated inside those silly socks of his, bulging his neck, contorting his features. "Come on!" he shouted to himself, getting the crowd to shout him on, too. "Come on!" We have learnt to love that disfiguring exhortation, and the pistoning arms that drive it, finding a cruel contradictory beauty in them. "Jimmy's pumped up now!" When you are down to yourself alone, when you have become you and you only, this is how you look. We saw the expression on Shane Warne's face twice last week, the eyes reduced to pin-pricks of pure self-vindication, the cheeks bloated anatagonistically like a puffer fish, and by God it was ugly. But yes, all right, exhilarating, too. We were in on an execution. We could smell the fatal tetrodotoxin.

In the case of Connors versus Borg the beast-ego rampant was no match, in the end, for the beast-ego chained. Ice cold Borg the commentators called him. Ha! The man packed death every time he walked on to court. Hence when he finally did lose at Wimbledon he could never face playing there again. But he came from an older, more mannerly sporting culture. Like Connors, and McEnroe after him, he, too, may have heard only the beat of his own heart when he played, but he kept that fact hidden. Which was why we could never quite make a God of him. He wouldn't pump himself up for us. He wouldn't show us how big his need was.

In our time there is so little shame attached to putting your avidity on display that you are even allowed to weep openly when it's thwarted. Agassi weeps whether he wins or he loses. His mouth opens like a letterbox for overseas parcels, and he clutches the bare square of scalp where his hair used to be. Just being him upsets him. Because we associate tears with deep feelings we are generous about their origins. However easy weeping denotes only shallowness. The drama of the self is an emotional business to the self-engrossed. Gwyneth Paltrow must cry whenever she visits the lavatory.

I enjoyed the booing of Martina Hingis in the final of the French Open. There should be more of it. The public unravelling of her psychology gave us a rare opportunity to take our revenge on a wounded Will to Win. We see you, we see you, boo, boo! But why do we have to wait until the athlete comes apart? She isn't ugly because she shows it; she's ugly because she is it.

Soon, maybe this week, maybe next, Martina Hingis will make amends. She will come seeking out our love again. I don't know why it's so difficult to look at Martina Hingis when she parts her baby mouth and smiles - maybe it is because she has one of those faces that seems to be all private parts; a too, too naked face, anyway, whatever it's naked with - but the paedophiles who follow women's tennis, the oglers of Anna Pornucopia and the rest, will enjoy it and forgive. What, though, will her reinstatement into our affections change? She will still be fixity of purpose incarnate, the human will precocious, running on podgy legs.

Elsewhere we know better than to value fixity. An iron will is a virtue only to a tyrant. In love, religion, politics, comedy, we take it as a point of principle that life is change and change is hope. Rivers must run, winds must blow. The anti-Semite, Sartre said, was someone who would make himself impervious. To hate cleanly you must become as resolute as stone. So why thrill to such obduracy when we see it in a player of games? Why revere the inflexible self-love of the winner, when we know that the good are always elastic, and elasticity means sometimes liking to lose?

Ritual, I suppose that's the answer. In sport we ritualise away everything that is most odious in our natures. Do it on a tennis court and we may omit to do it in life. Fine. But to admire the predatory me me me of the sportsman because it is accompanied by good ground strokes is, however, not only lunacy - it is sacrilege.