Stephen Bayley: Well played! Or why an English gent should never win at tennis

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The Independent Online

Something died on screen last Wednesday and it was not a pretty sight. It was not so much a pivotal moment in the history of All English tennis as a tipping point in the long decline of English manners. And I do not mean Greg Rusedski's bravura profanities, vividly broadcast live before they could be decorously bleeped, impressive as they were. Rusedski's coloratura outburst was understandable, even allowable, while he watched his life disintegrate before him, a victim of irrational and uncontrollable forces, while we were guilty voyeurs, embarrassed, but fascinated. The unlovable Wimbledon officials even seem to have acknowledged an element of the player's helplessness while admitting to a hitherto undisclosed set of humane sympathies. By giving Rusedski only a token fine for what they still so cutely call "audible obscenities", there was a suggestion that the problem was not the player's, more the game's, even more the country's.

Greg Rusedski is a great professional tennis player, perhaps a tad too professional for some. Our problem is that professionalism is deeply at odds with the English sensibility. Dizzy Gillespie said a professional is someone who can do it twice. Professional tennis players do it a lot more often. Andre Agassi once said he has hit not less than 3,000 tennis balls a day since he was three. The more I practice, the luckier, I get, as the saying goes. For the English, practising towards a sort of perfection seems rather ungentlemanly.

Rusedski, nine months in preparation for that awful day and playing beautifully, might have been furious with himself, the umpire, the Fates, but he is a pro. And he just gave us an insight into what, if anything other than winning, is in the mind of the professional tennis player. It is a mixture of loathing (self and others) compounded with monorail feral aggression. Most people are now pretty certain this is not a place they would care to go.

The ritual calls and responses of the tennis court are deeply revealing of the English personality. When someone blasts a blinding shot which you have not got a chance of returning, or even reaching, you are required to say "too good" when what a modern person actually feels is, "You evil bastard, I'll get you for that".

One step below "too good" is the "well played", with all its heavy freight of inappropriate condescension as you are performed out of the game. The English gentleman learnt a lot from Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (written in 1514, published in 1528), one of the great expressions of the Renaissance sensibility. Castiglione says that a gentleman should never strive to win at tennis, since it is politic of the ambitious courtier to let others appear to succeed (while controlling the game from the back of the court). Significantly, at Wimbledon last week, the most gentlemanly behaviour I saw was from an elegant Ecuadorian, Nicholas Lapenti, who produced unforced smiles, and shrugged or gave that amiable shaky-hand Latin gesture to indicate his embarrassment with a lucky drop shot. Rare and beautiful.

Thus the exquisite agony of Greg Rusedski, trying to become one of us at just the moment when the rest of the world figures they would rather be someone else. Professionalism and its cruelly competitive morality sit uncomfortably with the traditional notion of Englishness. In the 30 years of of professional tennis, the English have been in steady decline.

One of the first great players of the modern era was Ilie Nastase, whose style Gordon Forbes, a much-admired South African gentleman player, described as "verging on banditry". Or Not Quite Our Type Of Person, Dear. Last week I played a stunt match with Nastase and he spent his time on the mobile, dismissing me - of course - with contemptuous ease while he spoke to his girlfriend, broker, travel agent. The English are fading from professional sports, leaving behind pallid, shell-shocked contenders whom it would be flattering to call "no hopers" since even to acknowledge the fragile existence of hope is to suggest the possibility of survival.

In this sorry context Rusedski's acquisition of Britishness is a deeply ambiguous adventure. He explained his epic effing and blinding on account of "wanting it so badly" , "it" being Wimbledon. Of course, this want is a self-denying ordinance, as Castiglione would have explained if he had been doing the commentary. Rusedski's bracing lack of restraint, his untempered explosion of frustration, were profoundly at odds with the English personality. But, significantly, it is not even a clearly defined English identity that Rusedski seeks, but a more diffuse, multi-cultural British one ... an identity with no article of faith besides a convenient passport.

In that amazing match we saw a vignette of an interesting, but flawed, personality and had a ravishing insight into the the tragic nature of the professional sportsman. Mats Wilander realised that, by the age of 26, he was keeping fit not to improve, but merely to stay where he already was. It is because sports, and tennis in particular with its dramatic personal struggles, are a metaphor of the larger human predicament that we find them so fascinating. What Rusedski realised, false call or no, was that there is a true and hurtful logic to the rankings. Although it was so very close, he actually knew the match was getting away from him even before the absurd interruption of its inevitable logic.

It is the same with Tim Henman. To be acknowledged everywhere as the fourth or fifth best player in the world, with no prospect of improvement, is a torture exceeding in its pictorial agony even the grimmest of Hieronymus Bosch's visions of hell.

And so again, tennis is revealing of the larger current English crisis, as is the BBC's Wimbledon coverage with its crass tabloid sensibility powered by a crude and hopeless nationalism, phone-ins or brainless competitions. On-screen graphics are like junk-mail catalogues of office stationery suppliers. The manners of the crowd are in a similar decline. Once, decorum insisted that they cheer only winners. Now they rudely cheer double faults and mis-hits. Even the man who undid Rusedski described himself as a bit of a moron.

Maybe we should have expected all of this as soon as Greg Rusedski showed off a new sponsor whose logo he wears, along with his heart, on his sleeve. Given the choice from Rupert Murdoch's portfolio of publishing interests, his advisers chose, not The Times Literary Supplement, but ... The Sun.