In the tunnel that leads to Wimbledon’s Centre Court, the players pass under two lines from the didactic poem “If”. It reads: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”
The words are Rudyard Kipling’s teaching to his son – his advice on how to become a man; yet this advice rings true for everyone.
When victory comes, and the cheers of the crowd reverberate, it’s not too difficult to act like a champion. You smile, pay fulsome tribute to your opponent, thank your backroom team. Job done. What a nice fellow.
But a champion shows his true face when the going gets tough.
Yesterday, Scotland grimaced, shrugged, sighed and maybe even wept a little as their hero Andy Murray struggled at Wimbledon.
He was not fit. We could see it from the very first set of the first match, but few of us wanted to believe it. So, we told us each other he always walks a bit funny, doesn’t he? Yes, but not like this.
Murray, now 30, battled bravely past four opponents before finally succumbing in five sets to American Sam Querrey in the quarter-final.
“I tried my best right to the end....I’m proud about that. I’m sad that it’s over,” an emotional Murray said.
Many competitors would have called an injury time-out and asked for treatment during the match – but the rules say that pre-existing injuries cannot be treated. Some would have pushed this rule to their advantage. Murray did not.
How easy it would have been to blame his injury in the post-match press conference. Or blame the scheduling. Or the grass. Or the umpire. Or to retire injured mid-match as so many players have done this Wimbledon.
But he wanted to fight until the end. And to fight some more. And to give the Wimbledon crowds a match.
In fact, as he walked off Centre Court he still stopped to sign autographs, in the face of pain and defeat.
He had lost his Wimbledon crown. And he knew his number one ranking was also on the line. But the mark of a champion is not to make an excuse, it is to treat disaster just the same.
Instead, during the post-match press conference Murray corrected a journalist who began by asking him a question, saying: “Sam is the first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009”, only to be interrupted by Murray.
“Male player,” the Dunblane player reminded him, standing up again for the role of women in sport.
We are often told that in this modern era of professional sport, when the rewards are massive and the price of failure punitive, that we must excuse temper tantrums, histrionics, bending of rules and downright bad behaviour.
These characteristics are aped by our children whose desire to emulate their heroes is understandable.
Look at football – a high-level game barely ever goes by without recourse to some form of cheating or seeking to take unfair advantage.
Is it any wonder that the next generation of players think this is how sports people should conduct themselves?
How refreshing then, that playing under the greatest pressure for the biggest prizes available in his sport, Murray acts the way he does.
Not only this but he speaks up repeatedly for women in sport; is outspoken on the poor level of drug testing in tennis; represents his country at the Davis Cup and Olympics with pride and passion; isn’t afraid to show his emotions; demonstrates endless support for the next generation of British players; broke the mould by hiring a female coach; is happy to laugh at himself; lives in Britain and pays his taxes here (unlike many top sportsmen). And he loves dogs. And his mum.
Is it too much to hope that many young people watching Andy Murray, both in victory and defeat, now understand the meaning of those words. Treat those impostors just the same. And then you’ll be a Man, my son.