The one thing to be grateful for, in the wake of Tim Henman’s unlucky defeat in that three-day semi-final at Wimbledon, was that tennis is not often a team sport. It was bad enough watching an individual player struggling to ignore the weight of national expectation that draped its coils around his slim shoulders; the thought of it being a team event made one realise quite how exceptional Henman’s performance was. If there were a Ryder Cup in tennis, we would barely be able to get a team together, because we are not a tennis nation, simply one that, for historic reasons, happens to have a major championship located in the path of some fairly reliable bad weather in June. We take only a cursory interest in the other major tournaments: how many of the shouting fans on “Henman Hill” could have named the semi-finalists at this year’s French Open? In countries such as France and Australia (not to mention the US), there are thousands of juniors who compete to a high standard. In England, there is only a handful. In this sense, Henman is (like Venus Williams) a one-off, the product of a driven sporting family lucky enough to have the resources to secure good coaching for their child. For us to have thrown up a player who can reach three semi-finals is a bit like America producing a cricketer, or Russia a golfer.
On the subject of Venus Williams, by the way: amid all the fuss about Henman, you could be forgiven for hardly noticing that she won her second championship in a row. Hers, too, is an amazing story, yet she was booed as she powered her way to victory. One hardly dares mention the possibility that she failed to win the crowd’s heart because she found herself in breach of the strict white-skin dress code that tacitly rules the roost. And actually, this is an unfair charge: the crowd warmed hugely to Arthur Ashe and the Australian Evonne Goolagong. So it’s probably more to do with her being big, muscly and intimidating; we prefer our lady tennis players to be pretty little minxes, if that’s all right with you.
Besides, she clashed with Henmania. It must be hard work, flying in the face of that hot, ill-tempered wind. Henman’s composure and politeness in defeat – he praised his opponent, declined to blame anyone and promised to keep trying – exposed that there is no longer a place in the British heart for that once great icon: the good loser. These days, we like our losers snarling. The papers were desperate for Henman to stick up two fingers to someone: the toffs at the All England club, for their failure to have a roof to protect him from the storms; the BBC, for scheduling his match closer to prime time, and so running into the rain that ruined his chance; the short-sighted fool who gave Goran Ivanisevic the wild card that got him into the championship in the first place. There were plenty of people to rail against.
Henman, to his credit, didn’t. The tabloid view was that this showed a sad lack of “passion”, a nauseating formula that Martin Amis nailed years ago, when he suggested that the word “personality” should be replaced with an eight-letter word beginning with “ars-” and ending with “-ole”. He has been ignored: day after day, the papers begged Henman to behave like a complete and utter personality. He himself copped the flak for getting our hopes up too high. But who got our hopes up? Was it he who said that he was the biggest thing since 1966?
Henman’s defeat reminded us once again of the extent to which, like it or not, sporting success is a weathervane of national pride. As spectators, we crave success, and the sports stars are our representatives – they are the best feet we can put forward, emblems of the best we can offer and aspire to. When they fail, we have failed, too. Much has been made of the power of Australia in cricket, rugby and tennis; we look on with aggrieved envy. But if we want our stars to shine, then we have to pay for polish. The disappearance of sport from schools is well documented, and it would be simplistic to make any connections between the summer rioting in our northern cities and the disappearance of sporting facilities from the UK’s educational system and agenda. But we do, at the level of politics, have to decide: if we want excellence, then we have to pay for it, because it will take energetic and intensive programming at junior levels. The Dome is idle; perhaps it could be transformed into something like the Australian Institute of Sport, which has been turning out world-beating cricketers, tennis players and swimmers for years.
It isn’t quite that simple, though. Henman’s conqueror, Ivanisevic, is not exactly your average product of some state-of-the-art Croatian Academy in Zagreb. But if we hanker after being the best, which we do, then at some point we need to start laying down a few smarter foundations. That means dynamic, well-financed coaching initiatives, which inevitably will have an intense, elitist flavour – only winners need apply.
It is not as if we are fussy about whom we support. Last weekend, we had a plucky individual (Henman), an English team (the cricketers) and a Great Britain and Ireland team (the Lions) to rally around. We didn’t discriminate – they were all “us”. In a further enlargement, September will bring the Ryder Cup, and we will all become warm pro-Europeans. In fact, Tony Blair could do worse than launch his campaign for the euro by squelching around the Belfry that week, cheering on the Swedes and Spaniards on whom our hopes will probably depend. He could take his new sports minister along to show him the ropes. (When he’s got the hang of the ropes, there might even be time to show him the game as well.) But Blair won’t risk it, because . . . what if we lose?