Saturday, 7 July 2012

Murray v Federer: Expect no logic from long-suffering Wimbledon fans

Hot Scot: Murray complete with Saltire cross

TOMORROW in and around the London postcode of SW19, life will not be normal. It hasn’t been normal for years of course. This time, we are talking extraordinary conditions during the gloomiest of British summers with black market tickets selling for 15,000 pounds.
Amidst record-breaking rainfall and bank-breaking recession, the long-suffering locals have a British player to follow for the first time since Bunny Austin got to the Wimbledon men’s final in 1938.
Reading through the social networks as the kilted Andrew Murray saw off popular Congolese Frenchman Jo Wilfried Tsonga in his historic semi-final win on Friday, it’s clear foreigners just don’t get it.
For the last week of June and the first week of July, people in the Southfields area generally rent their houses out for vastly inflated prices when the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club bring their championships to the borough of Merton as they have since 1877.
Crowds gather, from dawn till dusk. They camp overnight, come rain or (occasional) shine. And ever since the second World War, they have NEVER had a local to cheer.
The women used to do okay. Anne Jones and, as “recently” as 1977, Virginia Wade have won the ladies’ event. But even Ginny learned to play the game in South Africa, where she lived until the age of 15 when her dad was Archdeacon of Durban. The accented twang aside, she was British when she won in Jubilee year.
But it’s the five-set thrillers of the men’s game which really draws the crowds to the now-roofed, rain-proof, night-defying Centre Court.
And the pain of post-war Wimbledon has been acute. Through my early years, the Aussie dominated 60s, the Bjorn Borg/John McEnroe/Jimmy Connors led 70s and 80s – when South African-Americans Johan Kriek and Kevin Curran went close – and on to the early 90s, Britain were lucky to get a competititor beyond the first week of action. Andrew Castle once took Mats Wilander to five sets in the first round. He lost of course, but lived on that "success" for years, converting it into a television presenters' job.
Jeremy Bates produced a couple of miraculous quarter-final appearances, the Swede Stefan Edberg lived in nearby Fulham, Boris Becker became a sort of honorary Brit, dozens of young English hopefuls came and went.
And then Tim Henman emerged. His grandmother was the first to serve overhand in the women’s game. His grandfather was the first to wear short trousers on court. He was born with a raquet in his hand in the land which gave birth to tennis (and football, cricket, rugby, golf etc etc) and again, with Canadian Greg Rusedski changing flags, we had a man (or two) in week two on a regular basis.
But for all the squeaky roars of “Come on Tim” and the Jokeresque smile of Greg, Centre Court on the second Sunday eluded the British. Inexplicably, tennis belonged to the hairy Greek American Pete Sampras or the hairless Italian American Andre Agassi.
Then came Murray. Dour, skinny, unquestionably Scottish. His intimidating mother Judy, the curious tale of the Dunblane shootings, that brief early outburst when Andy told us he hoped England’s football team got stuffed (he was just saying what all Scots really think) didn’t really lead to a warm relationship between the home-counties Wimbledon faithful.
And even when he saw off Tsonga on Friday, the critics were at it. Murray, asked if he thought of the pressure his parents were going through in the stands, said: “I’m not really bothered, it’s tougher for me.” Asked if he would explain the finger he pointed at the sky, he grumbled: “No,that’s private.”
And the tweeters got stuck in to our Scottish hero, the latest in a long line which goes back to William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie and erm… Graeme Souness, Gordon Brown, Billy Connolly and Rod Stewart.
For those born outside the sceptred isles, it’s hard to understand the antipathy between the English and the Celts. Ireland, Scotland and Wales are British, but never English. For years, the English loved to bully their neighbours. What Oliver Cromwell did to the Irish, wiping out nearly a quarter of the population, can never been forgotten. What various English armies did north of Hadrian’s wall, banning the kilt and imprisoning the locals, rankles too.
But today the United Kingdom will be united by a scrawny Scot with a tennis racquet. We can go back to John "Evert" Lloyd in 1977 in Australia and Greg Rusedski in 1997 in New York for previous Grand Slam finalists.
But this will be Murray’s fourth shot, after a US Open final and Aussie Open finals in 2010 and 2011. All failures, but not bad going for a lad who was asked, at 15, to join Rangers Football Club. Bet he’s glad he opted for smaller balls now.
Murray goes in to the final against the much-decorated Swiss giant Roger Federer, the darling of Centre Court for more than a decade, insisting: "It's a great challenge, one where I'm probably not expected to win the match, but one that, if I play well, I'm capable of winning.
"If you look at his record here over the past 10 years or so, it's been incredible. So the pressure that I would be feeling, if it was against somebody else, I guess it would be different. There will be less on me on Sunday because of who he is."
Murray mania: tomorrow's Independent
Federer, heading inexorably for a seventh Wimbledon title after his brilliant semi-final triumph over World No1 Novak Djokovic, says: "Britain reminds me a bit of Australia because you don't have the amount of players they have in France or America, so the focus is more on one player, maybe a couple.
"I think what is so particular about this country is that there's so much attention on that one player, which is Andy Murray. Let's be happy that he's such a great player that he lets that sort of hype last. He will only get better.”
But when the Fed Express with the mum from Kempton Park, South Africa takes on the Dunblane survivor and Henman Hill/Rusedski Ridge/Murray Mount starts cheering in the rain, remember his: There will be no logic behind the British passion for Andy. Just 78 years of history. And I haven’t even mentioned Fred Perry.

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