LONDON — Britain is a country great with words—hey, Shakespeare, Milton and Churchill were Englishmen—but not so great at games.
It’s a faded empire where once the sun never set, but now—on fields and courts—it symbolically rarely rises.
It’s a place where athletic success, more significantly failure, is taken personally.
“Don’t you dare lose, Tim,” was the front-page headline in a tabloid a decade past when Tim Henman, “our Tim,” was about to play a Wimbledon semifinal for a fourth time.
He lost. All four times. Like the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl.
Ah, but last year, the anguish ebbed when Andy Murray ended the drought of British winners that had started before World War II.
Tennis was created in Britain. So was golf. So was soccer. And rugby. The English used to win everything. Now, the winners are Spaniards and Swiss, South Africans and Serbs, Americans and Australians.
After the country endured what is being called its worst World Cup performance in recent memory, The Daily Telegraph's sports-page headline was, “England's Shame.”
In British papers, the home guys may be brave and courageous and witty. But they’re rarely winners, despite the hectoring of sportswriters and the pleading of fans.
This may not be the exact quote, but the great sports columnist Hugh McIlvanney, now with The Sunday Times, conceding he was mixing metaphors, said of the manner Brits first build up and then tear down their athletes, “They fatten you up like cattle, then pull off your wings like butterflies.”
All sports in Britain, someone said long ago, are covered subjectively and politically. Brits are brave, courageous and in sixth place with the notable exception of Murray, who in 2013 won Wimbledon and Monday returned to a standing ovation at Centre Court, where he breezed to victory.
Poor Andy. Rich Andy. Seventy-seven years without a Brit as champion of the All England Lawn Tennis Championships.
Henman couldn’t do it. Greg Rusedski, a Canadian who claimed British citizenship, couldn’t do it. But Murray did it and came back Monday to a supportive crowd, a victory and finally the sort of inane question British athletes face all too often.
Asked whether he feels he could give British fans “something to cheer about” now that England is out of the World Cup, Murray had the perfect response.
“No,” he said. “I’m here to do my thing. I don’t think the English football team get asked about me in their press conferences. So I’d appreciate if that wasn’t brought up when I was playing, because I’m yet to hear Wayne Rooney talk about my matches at Wimbledon.”
In Britain, roughly 67 million people are wedged into an area about the size of Oregon. There’s no place to hide.
The papers are numerous and national. The guy in Los Angeles may not know who is the Vikings' starting quarterback—sometimes, even the guy in Minneapolis doesn’t—but everyone from John o’Groats at the tip of Scotland to the English Channel knows who the striker is for England: Wayne Rooney.
He claimed that the squad lacked toughness, the sort of story the British press devours like fans do the strawberries at Wimbledon. You end up with the contradictory, “This is the best spot on the planet, but something’s wrong with the people who play here.”
Succeed, and you’re a king, or queen—appropriate descriptions in a nation of royalty. Do wrong, and you’re fortunate not to be exiled. Henman, a pleasant fellow who now does commentary for the BBC, was treated as the ultimate disappointment because he came too close never to cross the barrier.
In 2001, he lost in the semis to Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia, who then won the championship. The Sun, a tabloid with a circulation of more than 3 million, whined a British male never would win Wimbledon, so Ivanisevic should be granted citizenship.
So many Brits are carried away by their history or by Shakespeare’s phrases—“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”—they feel entitled. To what, another thrashing by Uruguay?
As players at Wimbledon walk out to Centre Court, they pass a quote from a Rudyard Kipling poem, to wit, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”
Kipling never got stomped by Italy. How embarrassing.
In British sports, the key word is underachievement. And reminders of that appear in print virtually everywhere you look. They still read in Britain, even if the subject matter cuts to the heart. Or spleen.
“England's Shame.” It doesn’t get much worse than that until the next game or match.
For Murray, that was Monday. Despite somebody wondering if his rescuing a dog near his home close to Wimbledon the other day had an effect on his play, and despite his next foe, the Slovenian Blaz Rola, saying, “Hopefully I don’t poop my pants and don't play well”—the moderator ordered reporters to keep it to tennis—Murray was fine.
He survived years of unpredictability from the British press. He would survive these questions that bordered on stupidity. The method has been studied and practiced.
“I don’t turn the TV on,” he said about avoiding the knocks and the doubts. "I don’t watch too much of the tennis. I don’t read any of the papers. I don’t go online. I just avoid it, concentrate on playing.”
And becomes a British hero in the process.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.