Sport - Jason Cowley wants tennis players with life

Maybe we can't have characters, but must we have jingoism instead?

There is, as usual, a quality of desperation to the BBC's coverage of Wimbledon. Tennis is a good game to play but nowadays a poor spectator sport. On the whole, all the characters have gone from the game. One remembers with pleasure the eccentricities and excesses of Nastase, Gerulaitis, Connors and McEnroe, both on and off the court. They were complicated personalities: driven to succeed, yes, but also wonderfully flawed and often, especially in the case of Gerulaitis, ruinously self-destructive.

There is not much eccentricity on the present men's tour. Modern players are supremely self-interested and well-subsidised vagabonds. They travel from one tournament to the next, and from one country to another, protected by a small entourage of advisers: a coach, a physio, a fitness guru, an equipment specialist, the odd obsessive parent or two. These ambassadors of hypercapitalism are invariably introverted and preoccupied by the vagaries of form, diet and fitness. The best are disgustingly well paid. Their privilege cocoons them. They never have much to say for themselves or show any interest in the world.

To interview one of the current crop of star players is a bit like meeting a young PR executive for a successful global brand. Speaking a weird, rigid, globalised English, they offer little more than smooth generalisations, often talking about themselves with a vague distance, or even in the third person, as if they were characters in a drama over which they have little control. Even the gifted, polyglot and intelligent Swiss champion Roger Federer, perhaps the best player ever, comes across more like the chief executive of an enterprising software company than a sportsman in his early twenties.

How to make these people interesting? One possible answer is jingoism. For too long now, the BBC's coverage of Wimbledon has been dominated by a single issue: could Tim Henman win it for Britain? The answer is no: Henman is pretty good, but not good enough. There is something missing from his game. Most people believe he is too soft - the comfort of his middle-class upbringing in a smart Oxfordshire manor house has dampened his ardour. He does not have the will or anger to be great. This is nonsense, because many of the greatest tennis players have been from affluent and stable families, notably the New Yorker John McEnroe.

No, this year Henman's trouble was all to do with technique. "People say that Tim hasn't won a major championship because he bottles out when it gets tight," says David Lloyd, the former tennis player and coach-turned-entrepreneur. "I don't believe that. He's lost matches because technically he's not quite good enough. He's lost key matches because his serve and his forehand have let him down, not because he's too nervous."

Did you ever learn this from watching the BBC's coverage of Wimbledon? Even this year, with Henman palpably in decline, the tone of the commentary was not acute and critical, but sympathetic and sentimental: everyone knew that Henman was finished, but no one would say it. Instead, there were the old, crossed-fingered expressions of hope and the rhetoric of soft nationalism. When Henman was knocked out in the second round, after another "agonising" five-setter (oh, Tim, why do you torture us so?), the BBC mobilised behind 18-year-old Andrew Murray, from Scotland but sensibly resident in Barcelona, and the whole circus began again. How good is he? Can he one day win for Britain? Oh, isn't this exciting?

Yes, it was exciting - Murray played well, with energy, talent and desire. The pity is that his fitness wasn't better. He may well very soon find himself among the elite of the game, on a never-ending tour of the world, passing through and playing in cities he will never know. But one should always remember this about Murray: he plays not for a team or for his country, but for himself. Support him if you wish, but I urge you to resist the banal patriotism of the BBC.

Jason Cowley is editor of Observer Sport Monthly

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