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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All the Premiership teams are competing to see who’s got the biggest stadium

It’s not just a financial, but a macho thing – the big clubs want to show off that they have a whopper.

Here in NW5, where we live noisily and fashionably, we are roughly equidistant from Arsenal and Spurs. We bought the house in 1963 for £5,000, which I mention constantly, to make everyone in the street pig sick. Back in 1963, we lived quietly and unfashionably; in fact, we could easily have been living in Loughton, Essex. Now it’s all changed. As have White Hart Lane and Highbury.

Both grounds are a few metres further away from us than they once were, or they will be when White Hart Lane is finished. The new stadium is a few metres to the north, while the Emirates is a few metres to the east.

Why am I saying metres? Like all football fans, I say a near-miss on goal was inches wide, a slow striker is a yard off his pace, and a ball player can turn on a sixpence. That’s more like it.

White Hart Lane, when finished, will hold 61,000 – a thousand more than the Emirates, har har. Meanwhile, Man City is still expanding, and will also hold about 60,000 by the time Pep Guardiola is into his stride. Chelsea will be next, when they get themselves sorted. So will Liverpool.

Man United’s Old Trafford can now hold over 75,000. Fair makes you proud to be alive at this time and enjoying the wonders of the Prem.

Then, of course, we have the New Wembley, architecturally wonderful, striking and stunning, a beacon of beauty for miles around. As they all are, these brave new stadiums. (No one says “stadia” in real life.)

The old stadiums, built between the wars, many of them by the Scottish architect Archibald Leitch (1865-1939), were also seen as wonders of the time, and all of them held far more than their modern counterparts. The record crowd at White Hart Lane was in 1938, when 75,038 came to see Spurs play Sunderland. Arsenal’s record at Highbury was also against Sunderland – in 1935, with 73,295. Wembley, which today can hold 90,000, had an official figure of 126,000 for the first Cup Final in 1923, but the true figure was at least 150,000, because so many broke in.

Back in 1901, when the Cup Final was held at Crystal Palace between Spurs and Sheffield United, there was a crowd of 110,820. Looking at old photos of the Crystal Palace finals, a lot of the ground seems to have been a grassy mound. Hard to believe fans could see.

Between the wars, thanks to Leitch, big clubs did have proper covered stands. Most fans stood on huge open concrete terraces, which remained till the 1990s. There were metal barriers, which were supposed to hold back sudden surges, but rarely did, so if you were caught in a surge, you were swept away or you fell over. Kids were hoisted over the adults’ heads and plonked at the front.

Getting refreshments was almost impossible, unless you caught the eye of a peanut seller who’d lob you a paper bag of Percy Dalton’s. Getting out for a pee was just as hard. You often came home with the back of your trousers soaked.

I used to be an expert on crowds as a lad. Rubbish on identifying a Spitfire from a Hurricane, but shit hot on match gates at Hampden Park and Ibrox. Answer: well over 100,000. Today’s new stadiums will never hold as many, but will cost trillions more. The money is coming from the £8bn that the Prem is getting from TV for three years.

You’d imagine that, with all this money flooding in, the clubs would be kinder to their fans, but no, they’re lashing out, and not just on new stadiums, but players and wages, directors and agents. Hence, so they say, they are having to put up ticket prices, causing protest campaigns at Arsenal and Liverpool. Arsène at Arsenal has admitted that he couldn’t afford to buy while the Emirates was being built. Pochettino is saying much the same at Spurs.

It’s not just a financial, but a macho thing – the big clubs want to show off that they have a whopper. In the end, only rich fans will be able to attend these supergrounds. Chelsea plans to have a private swimming pool under each new box, plus a wine cellar. Just like our street, really . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle