There’s a special pleasure in following Wimbledon in England because you can read the English papers on Andy Murray’s passage through the tournament. I’ve been reading the Guardian, The Independent and The Times and they’ve convinced me that an obscure wild card called Federer has made his way unnoticed to the final even as the Scot, indisputably the greatest tennis talent since Bill Tilden, has fallen by the wayside.
Fred Perry, the last Englishman to win the men’s title here, was exhumed in the nation’s sports pages to supply historical context for Murray’s quest for glory. We were told that Perry was an original, a table tennis champion who brought that game’s wristy stroke play to his tennis style. Raising Perry from the dead used to happen when Tim Henman was a competition at Wimbledon, but this year Murray’s handlers managed to suggest that Murray was actually possessed by Perry: The young Scot took to wearing the classic Fred Perry tennis kit, complete with laurel leaves. You can see Murray’s image builders thinking, “Gilt by association!”
Since Perry isn’t best placed to supply television sound bites, Virginia Wade, the last living British champion at Wimbledon, was pressed into service and she gamely obliged. She paid backhanded homage to Henman by suggesting in her genteelly strangled voice that he was a gallant trier without ever being a likely winner, whereas Murray was a volcano of talent for whom victory in the championships was merely a matter of time. The trouble is that for a British cheerleader, Wade sounds more and more South African every passing year. Also she isn’t wholly convincing because it’s clear that a Murray victory would be against her own best interests: Nobody would wheel her out again as the last British champion at Wimbledon.
Big strides: Will Murray live up to the hopes next year? Toby Melville / Reuters
BBC Television left nothing to chance. Henman, the Last Great British Hope, was produced to anoint his successor. Given that he is the most inarticulate expert in the history of tennis commentary, he wasn’t much help, but a fellow commentator intervened to suggest that Henman Hill ought to be renamed Murray’s Mound. I can report that the term didn’t take, possibly because it sounded lewdly suggestive.
Just to make sure that viewers didn’t go away thinking Murray’s sponsors were exclusively British, we had John McEnroe, the world’s best tennis commentator if you don’t count Vijay Amritraj, declare that Murray had the “best hands in modern tennis”. Boris Becker boosted the prevailing British mood to say that the big story of Wimbledon 2009 wasn’t Federer’s bid to break Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles but Murray’s quest to be the first Brit to win it in Fred Perry’s centenary year.
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On television we were treated to frequent cutaways to Murray’s mother, Judy, as she sat in the stands following her younger son’s progress with manic intensity, looking scarily like Andy in drag. Then, when Murray got to the last four, the papers headlined his indifference to the fact that he had reached the semi-finals. This was a lowly distinction: He, Murray, would be satisfied with nothing less than the title.
Then, after this 12-day frenzy, he met the other tennis Andy, Andy Roddick, on Centre Court…and lost. Could it have been down to the fact that they were both called Andy? Did that keep the crowd from yelling their man to victory? We shall never know. But ranks of British tennis writers had to change gears and go into reverse. They did so manfully, drawing upon their accumulated experience in disappointment to deal with this unexpected wrinkle in the script. Chris McGrath of The Independent achieved immortality as the author of the strangest passage ever written about competitive tennis.
“For now,” he wrote, “the craving for another British champion must remain unrequited. The crowd gnawed restively at their hero’s nerves. Could he stem the merciless Roddick serve, as consistent as it was ferocious? And what of that other, more tender reciprocation? The one that will some day sprinkle all that passion, so far vested in his return, far beyond the baseline?”
I think McGrath’s saying that Murray will one day have sex but it won’t be on a tennis court. You think that’s far-fetched? “Sprinkle all that passion…far beyond the baseline”— what do you think he meant?
Now we can settle down to watching competitive tennis for the rest of this year between pygmies such as Federer and Roddick and Nadal, secure in the knowledge that next year in Wimbledon, the drama around Murray will be bigger and better—it’ll be 74 years since Perry’s victory, not just 73; and 72 years since the last British man reached the men’s final (Bunny Austin in 1938), instead of 71—and Murray will be a year older, a year better, all set again to win. The Independent’s headline said it best: A test failed, but time remains firmly on Murray’s side. That’s right. He’s younger than Federer. No one can take that prize away from him.
Meanwhile, this time next year, Federer will skulk in the giant shadow cast by this great Scot, forlornly trying to win his 16th or 17th Grand Slam title. Some people just don’t know when it’s time to make room and move on.
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
Write to Mukul at firstname.lastname@example.org