It was, surely, Andy Murray’s greatest moment at Wimbledon: an ace past Roger Federer’s flailing backhand to win the final in straight sets, and an overjoyed, unashamedly partisan crowd on their feet to greet his triumph in exactly the spirit it deserved.
Except, of course, that this triumph was achieved in the colours of Team GB. This was not the Wimbledon Championships, but the Olympics. And, as Murray himself has acknowledged, this probably isn’t a coincidence. “I just find when [the crowd] is extremely noisy and vocal, that helps me,” he said recently. “The Olympics were always going to be different. There were so many flags and stuff and colours in the crowd… it just had a different feel to it.”
It’s hard to disagree. What Murray won’t add is that it took years for the harrumphingly English crowds of SW19 to recall their Britishness and give him even the support he enjoys today. (We have, one hopes, now heard the last titters of “Come on, Tim” as Murray prepares to serve, perhaps the snootiest and least amusing joke in sports, and emphatically absent from the Olympics.) Wimbledon is the tournament of Cliff Richard and white uniforms and strawberries and cream; it is not a tournament of flags and colours in the grandstand. Anyone who doubts the distinction should consider how the atmosphere changes on the rare occasions that walk-up fans comprise the majority of the crowd on Centre Court. In general, we can thank the rain. Think of the joys of “People’s Sunday”. Think of the Monday final of Pat Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic, surely the most thrilling conclusion to the tournament in recent times.
The sense that the tournament is, for some, a kind of safari trip into the exotic world of sports fandom is strengthened by the strange experience of Laura Robson. Robson’s ponytail and ready smile made her seem a ready repository for the hopes of the crowd, and yet even she might sometimes have wished for more forthright support. For the first few games of the match that earned her yesterday’s ill-fated fourth round tie, one journalist observed, she played in front of a “half empty grandstand”. If Roy Keane didn’t like the prawn sandwich brigade at Old Trafford, one dreads to think what he would have made of this lot.
Wimbledon remains, without any doubt, the greatest tennis tournament in the world. And tennis is the most gladiatorially thrilling of sports, at once pitiless and humane. So what is it about the denizens of Centre Court that so deadens the spirit? Maybe the ticket prices; maybe the grand traditions that surround it. Neither of these is easily fixed.
And so Andy Murray’s chances of sampling that atmosphere again are, one fears, about as good as his chances of playing his quarter-final in a shirt bearing the design of the Union Jack.