Brian Viner: Natural-born winners skip charm school

The Last Word

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Earlier this week I asserted in a column that we British embrace our doughty losers more warmly than our feisty winners. I wasn't exactly sticking my head above the parapet; loads of examples spring to mind.

But I was challenged by a reader who suggested that while we yearn for winners, it is simply a mark of our maturity as a nation that we prefer our sportsmen and women to lose graciously than win charmlessly. That's rubbish and I told him so. But it is indubitably true that a dispiriting number of British people continue to lambast Andy Murray for his perceived lack of charm. They cannot be serious, to quote another old charmer, and yet they are.

Today, one of the most brilliant British sportsmen of his generation steps on to the global stage. He is relentlessly driven, single-minded and often surly. If charm could be surgically removed, you'd assume that he had been to the operating table. His name is Mark Cavendish, the 24-year-old Manx cyclist with the most successful outfit of 2009 so far, Team Columbia-HPC. Cavendish embarks on the Tour de France today hoping to exceed his remarkable feat last year of winning four stages. He cannot win the Tour, because he is built for sprinting not climbing, but he can win the coveted maillot vert, the green jersey, awarded to the rider who acquires most sprinting points over the course of the great race. And win it, even if not this year, he surely will.

I conducted a brief interview with him recently in the middle of Regent's Park in London. Our chat was punctuated by animal noises from the nearby zoo, and although in Cavendish's defence it was approaching the end of a long, hot day of sponsorship obligations, there were nevertheless times when the distant warthogs might have been more obliging. But it didn't matter, because here, manifestly, was a born winner. Indeed, in failing to remove his sunglasses, which I always think is the least an interviewee can do, I was reminded of the only other man who forced me to interview him without offering eye contact: Ian Botham. Their show, their rules – that's the message.

Cavendish, though, must take his show overseas. It is hard to convey just how celebrated he is in countries where cycling is venerated, yet I dared to suggest to him that not one passer-by in 10 would recognise him in Regent's Park. "But I never expected it here," he said, shortly. "If I expected it, it would be different."

With a little courageous prodding, I persuaded him to tell me what fame is like for him in Italy, where he has a house. "In Tuscany," he said, "cycling is a religion. I went to a restaurant there the other week that I'd never been to before. As soon as I sat down they brought out a massive plate of prosciutto. They said, 'That's for your success in the Giro [d'Italia]'. That's what it's like in Italy. They show appreciation of what I've achieved. I've never wanted to be known for my face, or my personality. I just want to be known for my achievements." It's a philosophy we British should explore.

Maligning ballet just nutcrackers

No sooner had the absurd Pieter de Villiers suggested that anyone in rugby who didn't fancy a spot of eye-gouging should buy a tutu and take up ballet, than Bob Willis told me that to him, Andrew Flintoff's bowling action evokes "a ballet dancer tiptoeing up to the crease," meaning not that it helps him bowl some real nutcrackers but that he only really uses his last few strides, hence the stress on his ankle and knee as he smashes his left foot into the crease. Now, I can't honestly claim to know my barres from my elbow, but folk in the sporting world should think twice before maligning ballet. I can't think of many sportsmen tougher or more athletic than Mikhail Baryshnikov, for example. And he spent some years shacked up with the lovely Jessica Lange. In a masculinity contest, I'd say he'd beat De Villiers hands down.

Gussie's frillies are definitely worth a look

A week ago in this space I rubbished a recent survey to find the 10 sexiest women tennis players of all time, given the preposterous omission of Evonne Goolagong from a list heavily weighted in favour of modern players. But there was I thinking that I had cast some proper historical perspective on the matter when an email arrived from a regular correspondent, John Miller, reproaching me for overlooking "Gorgeous" Gussie Moran, who in 1949 pitched up on Centre Court wearing frilly knickers, clearly visible below the hem of an unprecedentedly short dress. Even as the designer of her outfit, Teddy Tinling, was told by a spluttering member of the All England Club that he had brought "sin and vulgarity" to the game, courtside photographers were falling over each other trying to get a shot of Gussie's underwear. It's a fair bet that there won't be any of that on Centre Court today. By comparison with "Gorgeous" Gussie, Venus and Serena Williams look downright prim.

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