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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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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