Wimbledon 2013: Why we love an underdog

The triumph of the unexpected, shock exits, poor weather, Pimms - it must be Wimbledon.

Wimbledon is always my favourite time of year and the best of the grand slams (unashamedly biased): plenty of Pimms, unreliable weather and surprise exits.

The shock of Rafa’s departure should be taken with a pinch of salt - his return from injury seemed near miraculous, but from the start he looked out of sorts of the green grass of Wimbledon. Playing on grass presents different challenges - the season is extremely short and going from the clay, where the ball plays slowly, to grass where the game is fast is not an easy transition. After his first round exit last year he was yet to play on grass, skipping Halle after victory at the French, so it was not a complete surprise he lost to Steve Darcis; the unseeded Belgian who played out of his mind. But Nadal will be back and no doubt with more hunger to win.

The exit of Federer seemed somewhat more peculiar; in his first round he had a mere six unforced errors and won in a little over an hour. During the match he looked so at home on centre court that I was predicting an eighth title. Writing off the greatest player of all time may not be the wisest move, but after he defeat I certainly sense a change in the tide. Luckily, the changing tide is one involving a serve and a volley - the sort of game commentators feared was extinct.

However, whilst the big stars enjoy the limelight, the small stories can be the most compelling – the stories of the underdogs. The underdog is an ingrained British obsession; we can’t help but cheer on the likely loser only to see hopes dashed when they crash out. In sports, as in fairy tales, we are looking for the character with a bit of an edge.

At Wimbledon there is always one who fits the bill and this year belongs to Dustin Brown, the 28 year old German/Jamaican dark horse of the tournament, who knocked out former world number one and Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt just a few days ago.  Brown has never made it further than the first round of a major but, having won the challenger tournament (without dropping a set), he’s now buzzing with confidence. Hewitt was by far the favourite going into the match but Brown played with such panache and style it was difficult not to warm to him.

The beauty of a player like Dustin is to see what the game means to him. The match was the biggest win of his career. This is a man who between 2005-2007 drove around in camper van which his parents brought him, playing challenger tournaments. It is hard imagine just how that win must have felt, but it showed in the tears as he left the court. Moments like this always add humanity to the tournament, breaking up the media monotony which can often focus solely on the top players and British hopefuls.  

The rest of the tournament will no doubt be full of surprises, upsets and heartache but I have to say, I think this story will remain my favourite. There is nothing more British than seeing an underdog succeed on the green courts of SW19.

28 year old Dustin Brown: this year's Wimbledon underdog story. (Photo: Getty Images)
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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