Sunday, January 30, 2011

Great male hope

Today Andy Murray lost his third major tennis final. He’s the best tennis player Britain’s produced for a long time. He’s also a lot better than plenty of people who have won majors, but he seems to be a victim of the ruthless consistency of his contemporaries. The days when Gaston Gaudio or even Carlos Moya could rock up and win the French Open seem to be gone. If you’re in a major final and you’re not Federer or Nadal then the chances are your opponent is, and as a result Murray may never get a better chance of winning a major than he did against Novak Djokovic today. Seeing him blow it in such unspectacular fashion must have been disappointing for his fans, though personally I wasn’t that bothered.

What does bother me is that the media seem to think it a cause of acute shame to British tennis (whoever British tennis is) that the last British man to win a major singles final was Fred Perry in 1936. They say it all the time. They said it when Henman and Rusedski teased us in the 90s, and for all I know they used to say it about Jeremy Bates and John Lloyd. Well I think this whiffs of sexism. We’ve had six major singles champions since Perry. Courtesy of Wikipedia, they are: Dorothy Round Little, Angela Mortimer Barrett, Shirley Bloomer Brasher, Ann Haydon Jones, Virginia Wade and Sue Barker. They are, of course, all women. But so what?

As an experiment, imagine what you’d think if John Isner got to the Wimbledon final and the American media remarked ruefully that there hadn’t been a white American major singles champion since 2003. If they said it gleefully, you’d think they were making some kind of point about African-Americans being better tennis players than white Americans. But if they said it ruefully, as the British sports media do when they mention Perry, I suppose the point would be that what they want is a white champion, and the achievements of Venus and Serena Williams are either a shaming contrast or an irrelevance.

Now, when I hear people moping about Fred Perry it doesn’t sound quite the way it would in the racial case, partly because I’m used to it but partly because in tennis men and women compete separately. I’m glad they do. But it isn’t like football where the level of professionalization is very different in the men’s and women’s games, and I don’t think the achievements of female tennis players are less impressive than those of men. If Anne Keothavong starts wiping the floor with the Williamses, the Russians and Kim Clijsters then British tennis should stop moping. Maybe it would, but this means it should shut up about Fred Perry. Given the amount of money it spends, it’s embarrassing enough it hasn’t had a major champion since Virginia Wade.

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