Tennis fan or no, you have heard it or heard-about-it, because it is like the Chicago Cubs, like Alf Landon, like that notorious pop song. “I can’t get no,” and so forth. The British Isles gave us tennis and tennis’s greatest tournament, but they have failed to produce a winner since 1936, Fred Perry. That is on the gentlemen’s side; on the ladies’, at least they had the great Virginia Wade in 1977.
But this year -- this year was different. This year, these past several months, this season, Andy Murray was on a roll. He was on a streak. He was, in short, playing his best ever tennis and he was hot.
There was the London Olympics, wherein the tennis event was played on the courts of the All England at Wimbledon, the same fancy club -- highly privileged and class conscious -- where they play what are formally called The Championships, but which the world knows as Wimbledon, the most prestigious, oldest, tradition-bound of the Big Four, the majors, the way stations on the way to the Grand Slam, the combined world series of tennis. Mr. Murray -- at Wimbledon you still call the players by their last names with the proper honorific and they in turn are duty bound to wear whites on the courts and the spectators, at least in certain seats, are asked to please wear proper attire, meaning coats and ties for gentlemen and correct dresses for ladies -- won that one, he beat Roger Federer who, as it happens, just a few weeks earlier had beaten him in the finals at this very same tournament, the gentlemen’s final at the Championships. Roger Federer has won the trophy at Wimbledon seven times, an Open era record which he shares with Pete Sampras; there was considerable speculation that he would make it eight this year, but it was stopped cold by his loss in the second round to Sergiy Stakhovsky, who went on to lose his next match.
(That was a pattern, the pattern of the first week of this fortnight-long tournament: several top players were beaten by relative unknowns -- which is not to say they are not great players, or they wouldn’t be here at all -- who then were dispatched in their next matches. Unable to read such a simple pattern, the boys in the press box were calling this the “wackiest Wimbledon” in memory, “hecatomb of the stars,” “serial upsets,” etcetera, and it was a lot of hooey.)
Of course it was true many great players bit the dust, the grass more rather, but that is what happens to great players, they bite the grass, or the dust, or the snow. By definition: consider Bode Miller, the greatest American downhill racer since Jimmy Heuga and the only current champ who can be compared to Jean-Claude Killy. He bit the snow. He recovered, raced again. Meanwhile, those who did advance into the quarters and the semis of this classic among classics were themselves great players. Tsonga and Nadal might be out of there, as were Maria Sharapova and Vika Azarenka and the 34-match-streak Serena Williams (defending champion and a five-time winner), but still in were top players in their own right, including Juan Martin del Potro and the rising Jerzy Janowicz and the sublimely graceful Agnieszka Radwanska and the rising Sabine Lisicki and Sloane Stephens and Madison Keyes (two great young American girls) and many others.
It is not whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game. And this (which happens to be written on the gate of the All-England): “If you can meet with triumph and disaster/ And treat those two imposters just the same…”
At least I think so. I, personally, have never been there. It is far more important for me to get there than to the pyramids or the Aswan Dam or some such Egyptian wonder, which if we had a pro-American foreign policy would both have been reduced to rubble a long time ago, but I digress. To be honest, seeing as how Mr. Tyrrell still has not got his friend Mayor (of London) Johnson -- one of the best tennis players on the amateur circuit and a fine tennis reporter for the Telegraph -- to exert some clout and get me an in, I am still pining like a jerk after that snob place and I know they never are going to let me in without I have some pull. So it could be I have my Kipling quote wrong and what they have up there is that other apt verse, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run…”
But the hell with that. What matters is that snob or not, this is the temple. It may be run by stuffed shirts, so is the Catholic Church, and that does not affect the message of the Gospel which the Church carries and protects, now does it? And keep in mind that the Brits keep telling us how they have not won since the days of yore, meaning the days of Fred Perry. But do they mind telling you about how the All-England treated Mr. Perry? Fat chance. He was a working class lad and they despised him. They thought he was not the right sort. He was the man who made England the dominant tennis power in the 1930s, and they hated him for it. The nerve of it! That a man whose father was a cotton spinner should win the gentlemen’s final three years running! That he should lead England to an unprecedented string of Davis Cup victories, never equaled! That he should win in doubles, in mixed doubles, in everything he entered and in every tournament, U.S., France, Australia -- they could not bear it.
And Fred Perry got the message. Here was a working class boy doing what they told him to do, what the Kipling poem told him to do, what the toffs and the stuffed shirts claimed they were born to do -- winning by grit and hard work and effort and coming back to win even after losing and even after losing saying it was not to win or lose but how to play the game. Respect your opponent. Respect the game. Respect the rules. They would not let him in to their club. Though he had his name in gold on the wall of honor, three times running, they despised him because he was not a public school boy, did not wear the old school tie, and when he needed to earn a living because unlike them he never inherited a shilling, he went to work and turned pro, played with the very best of the best, Ellsworth Vines and Don Budge and the aging Bill Tilden, and worked: for these were men at work.
They do not tell you that. They tell you just that England our England has not won since Fred Perry… they do not even tell their children who Fred Perry was.
Fred Perry was a man and a gentleman and a warrior. He went to the U.S., became an American, land of freedom and equality, served in the Air Force in World War II, fought for freedom, came home and created a clothing company bearing his name, entrepreneurship is what this is called, another quality the toffs frowned upon, an activity for the vulgar classes, the commoners and the Jews… (He continued to take an interest in British tennis, hoped he would live to see another Britisher win; he died in 1995.)
Andy Murray, the young champion they call the Great Scot -- he is well over six feet, as indeed many top tennis players are these days -- is from Glasgow, he has been rising for several years now and has been frustrated repeatedly by the likes of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But Nadal, who beat Djokovic and David Ferrer to win an unprecedented eighth French Open last month, was bounced in the first round by a Belgian up-and-comer (who forfeited the next match, the strain of beating Rafa must have done evil things to him), and Federer, as per above. That left the great mountain man, who has been suffering recurring injuries this season, notably a strain on the ankle while leading his mates over the U.S. team in Davis Cup competition. And moreover, the Serb, who is ranked world number one in the ATP ratings, played a classic in the semis against the great Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro, ex-U.S. Open champ and a mountain of power and -- let it be said -- grace. Del Potro, who is nearly the same age as Murray, is about where he was a year or two ago -- on the cusp of greatness. Badly injured after that U.S. Open win, he lost a season and a half to recovery and lately has consistently been almost-there, which is where Murray was until the marvelous streak that began with that Olympics victory -- and, it should be noted, with the arrival of Ivan Lendl as his coach. When the great champion of the McEnroe-Connors-Lendl era, which followed the Ashe era, and preceded the Agassi-Sampras era, is not playing golf at Lake Waramaug in Connecticut, where he is one of the best, he is helping Murray get his head where it has to be, because, you know, tennis is mental.
Lendl is some kind of genius. He sits there poker faced behind dark glasses -- they showed this on the tube -- and it is obvious something is happening. He had given Andy Murray the gift of discipline, of control over his emotions.
But you still have to hand it to the man they call Delpo. He played Djokovic in the semis in what probably will go down as the best match of the tournament, five excruciating sets that the Serb finally pulled off, and it must have cost him. Of course it cost him. Against Murray in the final, he was, even on TV visibly exhausted almost from the start. He slipped and fell three times (though on one fantastic dive he made the shot and won the point), never could get control of the game consistently. He let Murray dictate the point, again and again. It was a hard-fought match, make no mistake -- Murray himself said so, and that last game, he said, was the toughest he will ever play. He won in straight sets, and there were no tiebreakers, but there were tough points, long rallies, and it was clear Murray had acquired a strength, a calmness under pressure, that previously he lacked. A few great wins -- Olympics, U.S. Open (against Djokovic, as it happens) -- will do that for you. That and a great coach.
And great talent, of course. Murray has a superb defensive backhand that keeps the ball in play until he can put in his killer forehand. He was thrown for a while when Djokovic, desperate, tried a radical change-up in the form of a series of superb drop shots. But Murray did not let them go to his head and began catching and killing them -- the last one appeared to hit Djokovic, but it was the throat of his racket -- and he even pulled off one or two of his own.
The end was fitting. In the end, the best man wins. That is the way of the world and under conditions of freedom it will happen, often enough. The Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob, won in the gentlemen’s doubles, firming up their standing as the greatest doubles team in the history of the sport (they currently own every major tournament including the Olympics and if they win at Flushing Meadows in September they will have the greatest prize of all, a calendar year Grand Slam, properly defined), and Marion Bartoli, the great French ladies champion, won her first major, well deserved, over the young lady who beat both Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska, Sabine Lisicki. It could be said that Miss Bartoli benefited from Miss Lisicki’s exertions against the great American and Polish stars the same way Mr. Murray benefited from Djokovic-del Potro, but that is the luck of the draw and the fact is that the French girl’s game was fantastic.
I should note here that we erred in calling her game essentially a counter-punching defensive style the other day, because on the contrary, at least on the fast grass surface, she is all offense, aggressive as Napoleon -- her father is Corsican, but she grew up in the heart of France, Auvergne -- never giving Miss Lisicki a break. She has astonishing, unconventional two-handed shots, backhand and forehand both, and an unusual service windup. She has worked like mad to get to this point -- at 28 she is one of the oldest first-time Grand Slam champs.
She, like Murray, like Perry, is the kind of person the toffs at the All-England never liked, never respected, not one of the better sort, and this came out during the awards ceremony when a BBC sports broadcaster named John Inverdale made an ugly comment about her looks -- she is cute, but not a beauty. This guy, the perfect emblem of a criminal pederast sex ring and child-molesting organization, which for decades has covered up serial abuse of minors, quite apart from spouting the worst kind of anti-American, anti-Semitic agitprop in the guise of “news,” richly deserves to be canned, but do not count on it, his fellow toffs will protect him and frankly it scarcely matters -- Miss Bartoli herself gracefully laughed it off, showing that she is head and shoulders above the pervs who run the once-respected Beeb.
And thus it was. For all its faults, the All-England is still that, the greatest tournament in the sport, and it was a fitting ending. At the very end, with Murray serving at 5-4, Djokovic put up one last rally worthy of -- well, since this is England, let us say worthy of Gordon at Khartoum. It was a glorious last game. Again and again, the one and then the other got the ad and failed to convert. Finally Murray hit a hard one and the worn-down Djokovic put a backhand into the net.
Moments later they were congratulating each other for a match well played. That is class -- not the kind that blackballed Fred Perry, but the kind that matters.