Let the wunderkinder play in peace
Not only is Wimbledon over, but by the time you read this the tedious annual inquest over British failures will be, too. The sense of outrage at our shortcomings was a bit less intense this year: the traditional "no British woman player past the first round" scandal was avoided by the simple trick of getting two of them to play each other, so one had to go through. Nonetheless, as in every other Wimbledon since the continents began to drift apart, we were denied a British winner.
Despite still being barely in the prime of his career, Andy Murray has begun to be referred to as "poor old Andy" by Sue Barker, whose soft maternal smile of sympathy-for-the-loser has been so honed by the past few years that she must be considering hiring herself out to school sports days. Not even my tactic of predicting that he wouldn't win in my NS predictions for 2011, calculated to tempt fate in his favour, did the trick. Well, fair enough. He's still the fourth-best player in the world, which is a lot better than we've done for generations. I'm old enough to remember a time when the only British man visible in the second week of Wimbledon was Cliff Richard, threatening to break into a medley. Things have come a long way.
But the criticism of Murray this year took on a strange character. It's not so much about the fact he can't quite get past Nadal. It's that he's not enough fun. There were articles and radio discussions about how Britain is still "struggling to warm to him". Murray's grumpy demeanour has been noted before, but there's a real sense now that he ought to have grown out of it. Why can't he clown around more, thrill us with impressions of the other players like Djokovic does, maybe pull out that old routine where you give the racquet to a ballboy? Why can't we see the "human side"?
The golfing wunderkind Rory McIlroy fell foul of this same mentality recently when he chose to do his practice round for the Open at the fan-frustrating hour of 6am. The Today programme, among others, sniffily implied that this was not quite on. What about all the people who wanted to watch him practising?
I think this insistence on seeing "the human side" is wrong-headed and silly. For one thing, it's asking a lot of someone who's already attained excellence in one field to shine in another. Why should Andy Murray be anything more than an emotionally reclusive, awkward 24-year-old who's brilliant at tennis? I'm a comedian and that's more than enough work for me; no one criticises my gigs because "although amusing, he seems to lack a solid backhand". If you had to do a press conference after a bad day at work, how many sparkling one-liners do you reckon you'd come out with? Now imagine several million people had watched that day at work and you start to grasp the unfairness of this expectation that Murray, as well as competing at the highest level of sport, should do it with a goofy grin.
You may say that if sportspeople want to get paid millions for playing a game, the least they owe us is to show some personality.
But those expectations don't apply in other highly paid fields. Naomi Campbell spends a fair bit of her downtime spitting at policemen and injuring journalists, but nobody suggests that this makes her a less impressive model. Would you rather your heart operation
was carried out by a dull, expert surgeon, or someone who's never been great at the actual cutting but reels off the whole of a Tony Hancock episode as he's reaching into your organs?
People at the top level of performance don't owe us anything but to continue achieving that level. Rory McIlroy has more than enough on his plate taking on vastly more experienced players at one of golf's most demanding tournaments. We shouldn't be troubling ourselves with the fact he avoided signing 1,000 autographs by getting his practice in at 6am. (If anything, we should marvel at the idea that a man in his early twenties was out of bed at that time.)
Having said all this, Murray did cry a little after winning the Davis Cup on 10 July.
So maybe now we can finally "warm to him". Next time someone serves me in a restaurant, I'm not tipping them unless they break down in tears, explain how much it means to have everyone's support and then end with a little dance. l
Next week: Nicholas Lezard