(At the time of writing, Andy Murray is 1 set up in the final of the US Open against Novak Djokovic, and a break up in the second set. In an effort to jinx him, I’m going to republish something I wrote about Tim Henman (and Andy Murray) in 2008…)
So, after a rather lengthy layoff, I’ve found something to blog about. I’m quite surprised to discover that it’s tennis, which is a sport that I ordinarily find very hard to get worked up about. However, this is a special case, because it combines that inoffensively tedious pastime with something that makes me quiver with incandescent rage, to whit – British People Treating Their Sporting Heroes Like Shit. It also features the miraculous evaporation of every ounce of respect I ever had for John McEnroe, which, again, I didn’t see coming.
Today*, as you cannot fail to have noticed, was Andy Murray’s Big Day. Having battled his way past despicable Frenchie (boo!) Richard Gasquet (and a couple of generic journeymen in the earlier rounds) Wee Andy Murray found himself facing off against Rafael Nadal’s devastating mix of hair and muscles for a place in the Wimbledon semi-finals; a matchup that promised to provide all of the drama and tension of a third round FA Cup tie between Manchester United and a bunch of welders from the Unibond Premier League. No offence is meant to Murray by that comment, incidentally, but the fact that I didn’t even bother to check the odds for value indicates how hopeless his task was. Come to think of it, I didn’t even bother to watch the match, which, needless to say, Murray lost in very straight sets.
I did happen to catch the beginning of the BBC’s coverage, however. Play was delayed by a few hours due to rain, which meant that viewers tuning in at the scheduled time, hoping to see Roger Federer emasculate Mario Ancic in the first quarter final, were instead treated to some banter between Sue Barker and her studio guests, Boris Becker, and Timothy Henry “Tim” Henman. This is Henman’s first Wimbledon as a pundit, and the first week appears to have taken it’s toll on his voice, which currently sounds like Marge Simpson after a month of elocution lessons.
La Barker was cracking as wise as she is able (in a rather patronising manner) about Tiger Tim’s knackered vocal cords, when something even more cringeworthy occured; John McEnroe barged onto the set, and began making a complete and utter tool of himself. Whether this was of his own volition, or at the behest of a bored producer desperate to liven up the non-coverage, (presumably they’d Iost Sir Cliff’s mobile number), I cannot say, but the upshot was that McEnroe proceded to set about Henman in a manner more suited to the host of a knobbly knees competition at Butlins, invading his personal space and loudly deriding him for never having won Wimbledon. Barker, ever the pro, immediately switched into the irritating girly semi-laugh she uses on Question of Sport when she has to pretend that Matt Dawson is funny, and not, for instance, the world’s second most irritating man. (Colin Murray, obv.) Henman, meanwhile, adopted the sort of tone and body language favoured by female employees at office parties when their drunken boss is trying to cop a feel: a simulation of good-natured laughter, barely concealing a burning desire to spray a can of mace through the back of the bastard’s eye sockets.
Sadly, the vast majority of the British public who were viewing this vulgar spectacle will probably have found it as hysterically amusing as McEnroe himself did. The reason for this is simple; they’re sullen, brainless idiots who feel aggrieved that Henman didn’t fulfill their repulsive jingoistic fantasies about a Brit winning the only tennis tournament they’ve ever heard of. Typically, this resentment fails to take into account the fact that Henman singlehandedly turned British tennis from a national embarrassment into something to be vaguely proud of, not that any of the ungrateful bastards who have lambasted him give so much as half a shit about tennis, of course. (For the record, neither do I. I just can’t stand lazy kneejerk idiocy).
Let us cast our minds back to the pre-Henman era. British tennis is the laughing stock of the entire world. The Davis Cup team is repeatedly thrashed by such giants of the sport as Romania, Portugal, and the Slovak Republic. Wimbledon is an annual humiliation, with the nation pinning it’s hopes on the likes of Jeremy Bates and Andrew Castle, praying that one of them can fluke their way through the first round, or maybe that their opponent will injure themselves and give a plucky Brit a bye. And in the world rankings… well. Here are the year-end rankings achieved by the British number one between 1985 and 1994;
1985-John Lloyd, 42
1986-Andrew Castle, 127
1987-Jeremy Bates, 89
1988-Neil Broad, 131
1989-Jeremy Bates, 96
1990-Jeremy Bates, 126
1991-Jeremy Bates, 162
1992-Jeremy Bates, 104
1993-Jeremy Bates, 97
1994-Jeremy Bates, 75
(Aside – in 1990, I attended a tennis training camp in Potters Bar where I was tutored by a guy who used to be the fourth best tennis player in Britain. (I forget his name). When he announced this to us, we laughed at him. Can you imagine that happening with any other sport?)
Henman broke into the top 20 in ’97, cracked the top 10 two years later, and stayed there or thereabouts until 2005. He peaked at number 4 in 2002. There’s a nice little graph showing the rankings of Henman, Rusedski and Murray here.
Now, bearing the above in mind, it’s clear that Henman didn’t have to do much to become the best British tennis player of his generation, but to rise so far above the mindboggling mediocrity of what had gone before him was a truly amazing feat. I’m fairly sure that if Henman (and, to a far lesser extent, Rusedski) hadn’t reinvvigorated British tennis, the Murrays and Bogdanovicovics of today would be playing basketball, or something. And yet here we are, with him being treated like tennis’s answer to Eddie Edwards! What the blue bloody bollocks is going on here?
Well, he never won Wimbledon, which is something he has in common with every British male since 1936. And while he made it to four Wimbledon quarterfinals and four semifinals in the space of nine years, (something he has in common with… no, wait), he was never as good at tennis as, for instance, Pete Sampras (something he has in common with… every single male in the history of the human race with one, maybe two exceptions), and subsequently is deemed to be a failure by the British public. Oh, and by John Mcenroe of course, which is a bit rich wne you consider that Mac wasn’t even the best American tennis player of his own generation! (Unless we’re measuring talent in terms of showing off and shouting, of course. In terms of Grand Slam titles, Jimmy Connors had him beat 8 to 7).
Of course, part of the reason why Henman has to wear a dunce’s cap on the BBC while Andrew Castle and Jeremy Bates seems to escape derision is the rise of lazy reference comedy and pisspoor panel shows in the 1990s. Ha ha ha, Henman lost again! He’s such a loser! And this is going to keep me in fallback materal and my agent in cocaine for the next decade! Ha! Ha! Ha! But that’s by the by, and I find it hard to get properly irritated by that sort of thing. What has always irritated the piss out of me is the way British tennis “fans” treated Henman during his career.
It all started out so well, when the wilderness years were fresh in the memory. The nation’s astonishment at seeing a Brit in the second week of Wimbledon bought Henman a few years of grace, and the groundwork for the betrayal (let’s not mince words here, because that’s precisely what it is) was laid. Tim got his own hill, and the phrase “will this be his year?” took hold in the nation’s psyche. Strangely, the phrase “no of course it won’t be his fucking year, would you like me to show you the odds on Sampras, you berk?” seemed to have less traction. But as the years of consistently reaching the quarter finals (or better) and giving the British tennis “fan” something to cheer in the latter rounds wore on, resentment started to fester. Why? Because British tennis “fans” don’t like tennis. They like Wimbledon, which is a different thing entirely. And as the resentment that Henman was only winning titles on foreign soil (ATP Masters? Beating Federer? Who gives a shit?) began to build, things started to turn nasty. The unanimous support for Henman at Wimbledon began to change into something altogether less supportive, with the crowd becoming tangibly antagonistic towards him whenever it became likely that he wasn’t going to provide them with the happy finish they craved. I’m no expert, but I doubt this helped his cause much. (Actually, scratch that – I know for a fact that it didn’t help his cause, because I used to bet against him regularly at Wimbledon, knowing that I’d get a great price on his opponent at the start of the match and an equally great price on Henman the second that the national psyche decided he was about to become a loser again. Did very nicely out of it, thanks for asking). Meanwhile, the lazy comedians had their fun, and Henman’s post-tennis career as summariser cum punchbag took shape.
And now, Andy Murray is almost certainly about to experience something similar, and possibly even worse, because he’s not even English! And apparently, he may even be harbouring some standard-issue chippy Scottish resentment towards the English, which may only manifest itself in a desire to see England lose at football, but hopefully runs much deepr. In fact, what I’d like to see, more than anything in the entire world, is Andy Murray winning Wimbledon in a few years time, then dropping his shorts and wiping his arse with the flag of St. George, right in front of 15000 of the world’s most hateful, sport-ruining, corporate bastards, and as many members of the Royal Family as possible. Please, god, let it happen.
(Mmm, ranting. If you think that’s bad, don’t get me started on the way David Seaman was treated after the 2002 World Cup. God help Murray if he ever ties his hair in a ponytail…)