Tuesday, 3 September 2013

How might Murray's success inspire our sporting culture?

There is little question of Andy Murray being British and his 2013 Wimbledon victory being a success for tennis fans across Great Britain and Ireland. Moreover history will always record his triumph as British - just take a look at Joshua Pim, for example, in the list of Wimbledon men's singles champions. Pim was himself Irish, born and bred in the now Republic of Ireland before it became independent. Yet although his biography shows his nationality with the St Patrick's Cross his Wimbledon titles are shown with the Union Jack.

 The image we've dreamed of for eight years
We all remember the fuss made after Alex Salmond 'photo-bombed' David Cameron but Salmond was keen to make the point that this was Scotland's first Wimbledon victory since Harold Mahony in 1896. If Andy Murray had been from the Republic of Ireland and the Taoiseach had unfurled the Irish tricolour above David Cameron then commented on him being the first Irish champion since Joshua Pim nobody would have criticised him for that whatsoever. Cameron might have been mildly embarrassed but nothing more. So Alex Salmond's flag waving was only as bad as the mere idea of politicians waving flags at Wimbledon.
But enough of the petty stuff, let's just reflect on the scale of his achievement and what it means ultimately. As Andy continues the defence of his US Open title we finally face the prospect of taking his success for granted. No more will we hear "the first British man since...." although of course it was Fred Perry who was the last male Briton to successfully defend a grand slam title. In the space of thirteen months Murray has won three big tournaments - the Olympics, the US Open and Wimbledon - with each eclipsing the last as the highlight of his career. It was quite extraordinary to watch Murray winning that final set and it was as well he did because he had put every last ounce of energy into the game and it was clear just how much the match had taken out of him. In the quarter-finals we had all breathed a sigh of relief when Murray won the match in five sets. A few rounds earlier a precious opportunity for Murray emerged when Nadal and Federer got knocked out of the tournament early leaving only Djokovic as a major rival. We still held our breath and prepared for disappointment such is what we have been used to. Even when Andy reached the final the last thing any of us expected was a straight sets victory over Djokovic, most us thought it would be won in four or five sets. Not that it was an easy match but we all wanted to remember the match as being one that was hard fought much as it meant a nervous watch.

You have to ask why it took all of 77 years to get someone from these isles to win a major - there should have been at least four or five of them reaching a final in that time or more even. And unfortunately for the Lawn Tennis Association, despite it being a great British victory there is very little in Andy Murray's success for which the British tennis establishment can take credit. While the LTA has started to take steps to improve in recent years it was a little too late for his brother Jamie whose potential as a future singles champion was ruined by his training in England though he does have a Wimbledon doubles title to his name. Subsequently their mother Judy took the bold decision not to let her younger son suffer the same fate and sent him to Spain where he was developed into the talent needed to become a future Grand Slam champion. That this couldn't happen in Britain is sad really when you think about England being the birthplace of lawn tennis. Certainly more needs to be done at a grass-roots level to motivate people to take up tennis. Perhaps there's a problem with the costs of using a local tennis club but certainly the poor weather which so defines our corner of Europe is a major factor. More indoor tennis courts could be built or all-weather facilities provided. At any rate something needs to be done to improve the state of British tennis because there is a lot of talent out there in the next generation.

This is the same concern we had following the Olympics, the legacy of any great feel-good sporting occasion is an opportunity not to be missed. But in Britain we are classically renowned for our inability to do particularly well in many of the sports which we originally pioneered particularly the big ones where the pressure is at its greatest. Murray helped buck that trend this year and ten years ago England won its first World Cup in Rugby Union reaching the final again four years later. But in football and cricket all our nations have been sadly outplayed by greater opponents. Hopefully the FA's new National Football Centre at St George's Park in Central England will provide the best platform possible to breed an up-and-coming generation of footballers that could win the World Cup or Euros within the next decade. But like with any sport, it's the people with the talent themselves that need to set aside the time and energy to do achieve what needs to be achieved. And they constantly need to evaluate their own performance and work out the steps they should take proactively  to improve. This is what Andy Murray did, he went through different coaches and worked out what was going right and wrong before finally he settled with the one who is no doubt here to stay, Ivan Lendl. It is Lendl's regime, highly disciplined, that really makes sure Andy is at the top of his game. I don't think that happens in team games very often and at a national level something is gravelly wrong. Part of the problem is that though they are playing for their country it just doesn't seem to be important in the way their club competitions are. Yet if England could do something like what Brazil did in 1970 and take four months out to perfect the team ahead of the World Cup then something magical could happen. There's little chance of that because the players don't finish their club seasons until May. But there is the possibility of playing far more often at a national level like happens with the Six Nations in rugby. If only they could resurrect the Home Championships that then the competitive mentality might be a whole lot stronger going into the major tournaments.

There will be very many pessimists among us who believe that the big occasions like the Olympics will become but a mere memory and its effect will be short-lived. Yet I am still an optimist because I only have to think about how I've personally responded to major tournaments. The 1998 World Cup was played in France when I was 13 and until then I had had only a limited interest in football. But following spectacle of the occasion I could think about little else and I was considerably more enthusiastic about playing the game - though as you might have guessed I was always the one who ended up in goals! More recently last year's Olympics motivated me, albeit for just a couple of months, to take up running seeing as I have a similar physiological profile to many of the distance runners including Mo Farah.

As a advocate of independence I could argue a number of things with regards to Scotland. A wealthier Scotland could mean more government funding to greatly help all sports not just tennis, an argument which applies to the arts as well. The more people take up sports in Scotland the healthier the nation could become and the benefits as a result could be enormous. And being represented under the Saltire not the Union Jack may help boost our country's international sporting profile.

However, there is plenty that can be done now to help inspire and nurture new talents. For the moment lets await Andy Murray as he continues this most golden of times in his career. With maybe five or six years left in him there could be as much as 20 majors still up for grabs and he could easily win another nine or ten. What that could mean for the next generation of players is hard to comprehend completely but certainly having learned all about Andy's journey to the top during Wimbledon and seeing him play it out to perfection many people will have started thinking "if he can do it, why not me?"

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