Without confusing politics and sport let’s celebrate proof of our potential, writes Alex Massie
MUST we start with the flag-waving? I suppose we must. There was something mildly vainglorious about Alex Salmond’s saltire-strutting performance at the All England club on Sunday but, for once, let’s not lose all sense of perspective. Unlike some politicians who like to exploit sporting success for their own purposes, the First Minister is at least a genuine sporting enthusiast. A spot of show-boating in the Royal Box isn’t even, really, a storm in an espresso cup. Not this week.
It is, of course, natural for Scots to take an extra dram of pleasure from Andy Murray’s success but, as a television audience of more than 17 million souls demonstrated, Scots have no monopoly on that pleasure. Murray is one of our own but he is not ours alone.
There are concentric circles of association rippling outwards from Murray’s friends and family to Dunblane, to the rest of Scotland, to Britain as a whole and then, beyond these shores, to wherever brilliant tennis is appreciated. A triumph shared is not a triumph halved and there is pleasure to be gained from other people’s pleasure too.
Perhaps it took longer than necessary for some English sports fans – and journalists – to appreciate Murray’s greatness but, mercifully, we can no longer sensibly pretend he’s an unacquired taste south of the Border. Indeed, there is something grimly chippy about the pleasure some small minority of Scots seem to derive from English hostility to Murray.
Then again, perhaps not all Scots warmed to Tim Henman. Murray’s predecessor as the great British tennis hope was the personification of a certain kind of Englishness. Nice, polite, plucky, losing. Britain, it was often said, would never produce a champion for as long as its heroes were well-mannered, smooth, young men from the Home Counties.
Obsessed by class, many Britons decided that Henman, so palpably upper-middle-class, was somehow too soft to win when it really mattered. Murray was supposed to be the antidote – even the antithesis – to that. Never mind that Henman, who six times reached a Grand Slam semi-final, won rather more than an objective analysis of his talent might have suggested he should have. Never mind either that Murray, like Roger Federer and John McEnroe before him, was hardly the product of a hardscrabble background on the wrong side of the tracks.
If Murray’s triumph must have a wider lesson for Scotland, however, it is that success in sport – or any other arena – is not reserved to people from other countries. Scotland and Scots are not destined to be plucky losers. The habitual Scottish attitude of presuming disaster lurks around the corner is a form of getting-your-excuses-in-early. It fosters an attitude which assumes failure is merely an inevitable matter of time and rare success some kind of heaven-sent miracle that’s so rare it cannot possibly mean anything, far less become a template for future success.
We like to think we take sport seriously but our attitude is rarely serious. The answer to the age-old lament “can we no’ do anything right?” is that too often we don’t expect to do anything right. It’s the kind of cringe that cripples.
If, to take the most prominent example, our footballers lack the essential qualities of technique and athleticism prized by other nations it is because we lack the will to teach our children how to play football properly. We simply assume that our footballers will be, in important technical senses, inferior to the opposition and must instead rely on emotion and “passion” to get them through 90 minutes. It does not have to be like this. Meanwhile, if the odds on Scottish rugby success are lengthened by a narrow playing-base we still too quickly use climate as an excuse for poor skills. This, despite the fact that more rain falls in Auckland or Dunedin than in Glasgow or Edinburgh.
A Scottish Wimbledon champion is, in fact, only a little more improbable than many others. Sweden had no great record of tennis accomplishment before Bjorn Borg. Federer was the first Swiss to win a Grand Slam title of any sort and until Novak Djokovic emerged no Serbian man had won any of the tennis majors either. Winners come from any number of unlikely places these days. There is no reason why this country – whether you mean Scotland or Britain by that – should be any different.
And, actually, it is Scotland and Britain. I neither know nor care what Andy Murray thinks about our great constitutional rammy. His success are irrelevant to these questions and his victories neither make a case for independence nor for the Union. Sport is not always the continuation of politics by other means and nor is it, as George Orwell fatuously suggested, “war minus the shooting”.
On the contrary, sport is something that brings people together much more than it divides them. We may favour different champions but only the most niggardly partisan fails to appreciate greatness when it is paraded before us. Murray has joined Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic as a great and inspiring champion. This is a golden age for tennis and we are fortunate that one of our own is such a part of it. We should savour that pleasure for this is the kind of rare era that does not often come around in any sport.
Yesterday, on Twitter, Murray was asked to describe his feelings in one word. His answer was telling: “Relief!”. Not surprise, or shock, but relief. The reaction of a champion who knew his day would come and that he would deserve his victory. He set his own standard long ago; he always believed his day would come. Now it has. Expectations have been fulfilled. If Andy Murray’s story teaches anything it is that standards, expectation and ambition matter almost as much as talent. Now win it again. No pressure, Andy.