Is Wimbledon too constrained by tradition and pomposity to allow world-class tennis a proper stage? The ambivalent public support towards a first-class Andy Murray illustrates the pressing need to direct attention away from ostentatious spectacle and back towards the game itself.
This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
It’s all Andy Murray’s fault.
Until the man from Dunblane came along, Wimbledon sat happily in the British summer schedule as a largely forgettable ceremony of queuing, rain delays and all-round conspicuous consumption. More diverting than a Royal Jubilee, and with better-funded television coverage than Crufts, Wimbledon established itself in the select group of sporting events where the presence of the event itself begins to outweigh any sporting endeavours which might happen to be attained wherein. Generally dominated by boxing and horse-racing, this infuriating category tends to reduce sport not merely to spectacle (in a sense, all popular sport is such), but to an empty excuse for spectacle. With Wimbledon in mind, cue an excuse for purple and green-tinted frippery, televised close-ups of the Duchess of Cornwall, and the inane ramblings of a team of BBC commentators who manage the remarkable feat of covering the Wimbledon tournament for two whole weeks without actually offering any semblance of insight into the sport of tennis in that time.
Before I am dismissed, at best, as some sort of madman with a personal vendetta against the sport of tennis, I should add that each year Wimbledon hosts some of the most scintillating examples of the sport. Indeed, mention tennis to me, and I immediately start recalling the great rivalry of Sampras and Agassi, the unstoppable rise of the Williams sisters, and the 4-hour epic between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Of course, all these recollections have Wimbledon as their setting.
In fact, it is precisely because Wimbledon is a serious tennis tournament, one of the four Grand Slams, and host to the finest players in the world, that I find it so frustrating. Britain is so obsessed with the trappings of the All England Club – its trowelled-on slabs of pomposity, its self-congratulatory image – that we forget that it is a top tennis tournament; not the top tennis tournament, but a Grand Slam on equal footing with the US, Australian and French Opens. We insist on calling it ‘Wimbledon’ but in pure sporting terms, it should be called the British Open.
Of course, such an inflated sense of self-worth was a useful accompaniment to the mediocrity which afflicted British tennis in the Open Era. With such inoffensive semi-talents as Andrew Castle, Jeremy Bates and Greg Rusedski – all three of whom are, incidentally, now pursuing unremarkable careers as BBC commentators - Wimbledon the spectacle was an infinitely preferable notion to Wimbledon the Grand Slam: Brits could handle needless extravagance far easier than we could deal with the rigours of professional tennis. The infamous ‘Henman Hill’ seemed a remarkably astute tribute to a player who failed to reach a single Grand Slam final; Tim Henman was more at home off the court than he ever was on it.
But the rise of Andy Murray has complicated things somewhat. In Murray, Britain has a genuinely world-class tennis player who, at the age of 25, has already appeared in four Grand Slam finals and on three different surfaces; who is only four singles titles away from matching Henman’s and Rusedski’s combined career victories; and who - were it not for the exceptional talents of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer - would surely have sat at the top of the world rankings at some stage in his early career. Paradoxically, given his brave defeat to history’s greatest tennis player in Sunday’s final, Andy Murray is too good for Wimbledon. Wimbledon the spectacle simply cannot cope with the prospect of a British player who embraces Wimbledon the tennis tournament.
This is where I think much of the public antipathy towards Murray ultimately lies. The ‘tennis loving’ British public (read: Middle Englanders who avidly watch Wimbledon once a year) cannot cope with a tennis player who is, at root, a professional sportsperson. No doubt some of this stems from a veiled xenophobia: Murray, as a Scotsman who famously said he was supporting ‘anyone but England’ at the 2006 football World Cup, does not immediately appeal to the genteel façade of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (and, to a lesser extent, its special-schooled little sister, the Queen’s Club Championships). More broadly, the prospect of a genuine tennis player is an affront to a sports tournament which is held in the public imagination as being only marginally concerned with sport. Much is made of his supposed lack of character, warmth or personality, and yet if this were an essential characteristic of a popular sportsperson, then 90% of professional footballers would be rendered irrelevant. The problem is, and always has been, that the summer pageant that is Wimbledon is not really about tennis. It is about image, pomposity, Royal Boxes and Cliff Richard. The wonderfully passive-aggressive Daily Mail headline following Murray’s semi-final victory over Jo-Wilfred Tsonga underlines this point nicely: “Now Can He Finish The Job?”, seemingly providing the subtext that, whether he wins the tournament or not, he doesn’t deserve to in the first place. Andy Murray is simply not as user-friendly as Tim Henman.
As it happens, I imagine Andy Murray will “finish the job”. The job in question, one which should be the ultimate occupation of any internationally-renowned professional sportsperson, is to rise to the top of his game - to be crowned the best player in the world, and to win Grand Slam tournaments, both of which can be accomplished without riding the preposterous merry-go-round of tradition, elitism and empty fandom that is the Wimbledon Championships. Once Britain can see Wimbledon for what it is, as a major tournament in an annual schedule of other major tournaments, the pompous spectacle of ‘Wimbledon’ can take a back seat and the thrilling spectacle of tennis can take its rightful position.