When the gates to Wimbledon opened on Sunday morning the crowd came tumbling in, carrying hampers, sporting patriotic apparel and coated, if they had any sense, in liberal quantities of sun cream. As they scurried for a prime vantage spot on Murray Mound one looked in vain for anyone aged 85 or older.
That is the minimum age any of them would have had to have been to remember Fred Perry becoming the last British male to win a Wimbledon singles title in 1936. Every year since, a cluster of Britons has taken to the courts in London SW19 and departed early, mostly very early. From Bunny Austin, through Tony Mottram, Mike Sangster, Roger Taylor and John Lloyd, Canadian import Greg Rusedski and serial semi-finalist Tin Henman, generations of British sports fans have hoped in vain.
Year in, year out, the All England Club has handed over a huge surplus, now exceeding £30m, to the Lawn Tennis Association. Year in, year out, the LTA has wasted it on initiative after initiative. The highest-placed English male is Jamie Ward, ranked 219 in the world. There are 20 Frenchmen, 20 Spaniards, 19 Germans, 18 Americans, nine Russians, even nine Australians ranked above him. Somehow Andy Murray emerged through the thickets of mismanagement and swamps of mediocrity to take his place yesterday as the standard-bearer of the sun-burnt masses on his eponymous mound and the millions watching on televisions across the land. To their collective delight and half-disbelief he then took that final step to climb Britain’s last sporting Everest.
Wimbledon represents a unique challenge to a British sportsman, made more difficult with every passing year. A Lions rugby tour is a huge event and a demanding challenge, but it is quadrennial and shared with 30-odd team-mates. England’s footballers have spoken of the pressure they feel under when representing their country, but tournaments are biennial, they have team-mates to share the burden with and, for most, their club careers offer similar opportunities for glory.
Murray is on his own at the net. Like all sportsmen, especially individuals, he competes primarily for himself. He is not unpatriotic, but the fire that burns within, that drives him on, is dressed in neither Saltire nor Union flag. Nevertheless, he finds himself carrying a nation’s hopes and fears with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails.
And he is very much in the spotlight. The tournament is on home territory, on terrestrial television, in the heart of medialand and, usually, the sole focus of sporting attention with Murray – until the recent emergence of Laura Robson and Heather Watson – the sole British hope. And there has been such a longing for success.
All the other sporting peaks have been accomplished within middle-aged memory, albeit those who recall 1966 and all that are mostly now thick of waist and thin of hair. More recently UK sportsmen and women have had a golden Olympics, regained the Ashes – and held them in Australia, won the Rugby World Cup and the Tour de France. Lennox Lewis’s reign as world heavyweight champion is fresh in the memory, the exploits of Darren Clarke, Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy fresher still and, if Augusta has eluded the golfers of the British Isles since the Millennium, Nick Faldo’s last triumph was only 17 years ago, not 77.
Not all these victories unite everyone in the UK. Few in Cardiff and Edinburgh were cheering Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal 10 years ago, but now Middle England has, for the most part, taken Murray to its bosom the nation is largely behind the Scot. The guest list in the royal box – featuring David Cameron, Ed Miliband and a Saltire-waving Alex Salmond – showed the perceived political value to be gained in supporting Murray.
Votes in Tennis? Unlikely, but up on the Aorangi Terrace every available viewing position was occupied. The main bank was as jammed as Bournemouth beach on a sunny bank holiday; around it were people in the bushes, fans peering through gaps in the stonework at the rear, spectators teetering on the brink of falling into the water features.
This is not to say all the nation’s communities are in Murray’s thrall. Most of the black faces at Wimbledon are working here. The LTA has made attempts to take the game into the inner cities but on the evidence of this tournament it has a lot more to do. It is not just an issue of admission prices. Yesterday ground entry was £8 but ethnic minorities were very much a minority on the Mound.
And what of White Van Man? One Sunday tabloid back page had a tiny picture of Murray in the corner of a back page dominated by Wayne Rooney. There is no denying football remains the biggest event in town. Murray attracted a peak of 17 million viewers for his final last year and 13.2 million for Friday’s semi-final, the BBC’s highest figures of the year. But England’s penalty shoot -out defeat to Italy at Euro 2012 was watched by 23.2 million, a figure which does not include the pub audience.
Rooney was in the royal box yesterday, giving football’s seal of approval to Scotland’s tennis superstar. Roy Hodgson, the England manager, who was another royal box occupant last week, should call in Murray for a chat. If anyone can tell his dressing room how to overcome the burden of a nation’s expectation Murray can.