The irony of Andy Murray’s emotional, draining, gut-wrenching defeat to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon men’s final on Sunday is that it comes at a time when British sport has never been in a stronger position.
There’s a tired cliché that persists, namely that my compatriots are embarrassingly rubbish at sport, never win anything any more and have to patiently watch as others exceed them in every discipline. I’d argue it has little substance.
Britons pretty much invented most sports that are played at a global level today, so every time England fail to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, get crushed by another team in a cricket series or fail in pretty much any sporting pursuit it gets remembered. The failures have a tendency to resonate that little bit more.
And yet, Team GB has been set a target of achieving 48 medals at the London 2012 Olympic Games. If you think that’s unrealistic, they won 47 in Beijing four years ago.
The cricket team is ranked top of the world in Tests and T20s, and has embarrassed Australia in a recent one-day series. The current yellow jersey holder in the Tour de France, and hot favourite to win this year’s historic cycling marathon, is Great Britain’s Bradley Wiggins. In club football, the current champion of Europe is Premier League side Chelsea.
In the aftermath of Murray’s glorious failure to Federer there’s a tendency to forget all that. There’s a requirement, almost, to accept defeat valiantly, to acknowledge the superior ability of another, to graciously bow to a conqueror.
Perhaps no sporting environment is so precarious as a Grand Slam tennis final, and perhaps this explains the anguish. With 126 other competitors already accounted for, and after two weeks of lung-bursting endeavour, it’s the final hurdle that is by far the hardest to scale.
Over the course of that fortnight, Murray had come so very far, had heard the cheers of his supporters spurring him on. He had known that for every one British tennis fan with a cherished Centre Court seat, there were dozens standing in front of a giant screen within the Wimbledon complex, and many thousands at home.
And every one of them, barring his own impassively serene coach Ivan Lendl, had been torn between exhilaration and despair in the course of individual points, across games, across whole sets.
Perhaps most cruel of all is the whiff of hope and optimism. Like some recreational drug, it numbs the senses, drowns out the reality. So you believe that with the first set in the bag, Murray has gone from plucky underdog to raging favourite. Heck he’s even got break points in the second set.
You hear a commentator say how Federer’s backhand returns are landing too short, how hard it is for a 30-year-old to win a Grand Slam, how the Swiss is bound to tire. Everyone is impressed by how fresh and focused Murray looks and you imagine the riproaring celebrations and the headlines the next day.
But we’re all forgetting, first, who the opponent is.
Federer is not simply one of the greatest tennis players of all time, he’s one of sport’s greatest champions ever. In all of the most subtle, most technical rallies, he’s found a winning angle; one shot looks beyond the gift of mortals, a half-volley forehand off his own baseline whipped back and landing on Murray’s own baseline for a clean winner.
The second set is snatched by Federer, the rain comes, the roof closes… and Murray? It’s tough for him now, so tough. Federer summons up reserves of stamina to play some of the best tennis of the tournament in sets three and four. He wins.
For Murray, there’s no disgrace, but the tears afterwards are a potent explainer: “How can I, being so good at tennis, not win a Grand Slam?” That’s what they appear to be saying at least. Is it unfair that the three players above him in the world rankings are so outstandingly brilliant? No. Unfortunate, but not unfair.
The crux of the matter is this: would he have been similarly confounded in another era that did not include the peerless trinity of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic?
We’ll never know. All we can do as British sports lovers is react to the individual occasion: to accept Federer’s utter brilliance, and give Murray a great big collective hug of commiseration.
Just don’t, ever, fall into the trap of thinking British sportsmen and women are failures. An Olympics on home soil should prove that is most certainly NOT the case.