Wednesday 1 July 2009
Brian Viner: You need to be losing to be loved in SW19
The Centre Court faithful had never wholly embraced the driven Scot
Nothing affords an insight into the British psyche like Wimbledon fortnight, from those who sneer that the All-England Club would be better named the Middle England Club, who scornfully opine that, apart from all the Bollinger-quaffing Home Counties toffs, the place is full of suburban Hyacinth Buckets spooning up strawberries and cream, to those same toffs and Hyacinth Buckets.
When I interviewed a couple of 16-year-old girls spectators at the All-England Club last week, and they were photographed with glasses of Pimm's, I was reproached by a reader on The Independent website for condoning under-age drinking – "or is it alright if it's middle-class kids at Wimbledon as opposed to council estate youths with alcopops?" However, this reader was then reproached by another reader for typifying a mealy-mouthed nation obsessed with "petty" class distinctions. All very revealing.
Similarly revealing was Andy Murray's metamorphosis into Tim Henman on Monday evening, or at least a Murray crowd's metamorphosis into a Henman crowd. Until Murray's epic five-setter against Stanislas Wawrinka, the Centre Court faithful had never wholly embraced the fiercely-driven Scot. He was just a little too Braveheart for their liking, altogether too single-minded in his assault on the world rankings.
By 10.45pm on Monday, that had all changed. By almost snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in a match he was expected to win pretty comfortably, Andy did a Tim, and duly carried the crowd with him all the way. Posterity will always remember the encounter as the first men's singles match to take place beneath the Centre Court's handsome new retractable roof, but its real significance lies in what it told us about ourselves: that we only really rally to the cause of one of our own when he threatens to fall short.
We are happy when we are the underdogs, a little self-conscious when we're top dogs. Or to put it another way, we (unlike the Australians and Americans) love our sports stars less for their infallibility than their vulnerability. On Monday, it took the spectre of Murray going out in a five-set ding-dong without even reaching the quarter-final stage (in other words, the spectre of Henman) to infuse the crowd with proper partisan passion. A week earlier, nobody had been quite sure whether the grassy slope in front of the big screen should be called Henman Hill or Murray Mount, but it is assuredly now the latter. For the Wimbledon crowd, Murray has finally come of age as a true Brit, not because he won but because he nearly lost.
Yet, even in referring to him as a Brit, I am illuminating another part of our national psyche, our collective identity crisis. North of the border they still rail that the English call him British when he succeeds and Scottish when he fails.
On the other hand, there are those who still cannot forgive him for his crack that in Euro 2006 he would support whichever international football team was playing England. He was 19 at the time, it was a mischievous throwaway line and yet it dogs him still. On radio phone-ins this week, a dispiriting number of Englishmen have expressed support for whoever stands across the net from Murray. That is a chippy minority he will never carry with him, whether he wins or even nearly loses.
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