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28 January 2002

When America loses at baseball, we shall know its empire is dying

By Robert Winder

I don’t want to sound unpatriotic, but I’m afraid I couldn’t face staying up half the night to watch Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski slug it out in Melbourne. I tried, but failed, to see it as the “mouth-watering clash” that was so widely advertised. At first, I put this down to my general lack of enthusiasm for tennis. And it’s true that I find the game repetitive and monotonous – nerve-jangling and claustrophobic in equal measure. But this can’t be the reason for my antipathy, because, hell, I’m a cricket fan, and there can’t be many games more monotonous or repetitive than that.

Maybe it’s just the commentators. Tennis does seem to be the sport worst served by television, with its refusal to mention any of the subtle variations amid all the biffing and counter-biffing, and its breathless preoccupation with “pride”, “desire”, “fear”, “nerve”, and so on. Why is a game that gives such obvious priority to speed, dexterity and anticipation always reduced to a mere sticky contest of wills?

There’s something else, though, something to do with the landscape of the game. It’s so cramped and artificial, so hemmed-in. Much of the pleasure in games comes from their association with a decent expanse of grass. Golf might well be a good walk spoiled, as the saying goes, but at least it’s a good walk: there’s a sense of faraway trees, sudden slopes and distant lakes, as well as a consoling mixture of terrains – rough and smooth grass, heather, water, sand, gorse, brambles, ditches and everything else you might find on a clifftop hike. Sport is escapist. Why would anyone submit themselves to the imprisoning geometry of a tennis court, which would make even footballers or rugby players feel like kings of infinite space?

But even that’s not quite it. The overriding dampener on my interest (and I’m approaching the point, at last) was the way that a match between Brits, in the early stages of a faraway tournament, was dressed up by our media as if it were High Noon Down Under. It’s no longer new, this shoddy marketing idea that the British public can be expected to identify only with British athletes; but it seems to grow stronger all the time. Very soon now, the media will start holding out the hope that the European Champions League final might be a “mouth-watering” clash between, say, Manchester United and Arsenal or Liverpool. Yet we see plenty of these teams kicking lumps out of one another as it is. Surely we want to see how they might fare against foreign giants such as Real Madrid or Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Juventus.

The best sport has an international dimension: that’s why the World Cup is such a big deal, and why watching England’s cricketers fall tantalisingly short in Calcutta, in front of 100,000 devoted fans, was such a spectacular thrill. Which is also why it’s a shame (and here’s the point – thanks for hanging on) that America, the world’s undisputed Top Nation, declines to participate in the world’s major team sports. For football, rugby and cricket, read American football, baseball and basketball.

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The pretence that these are global games finds its silliest expression in America calling its premier baseball competition the World Series. Otherwise (with the prominent exception of the Ryder Cup) the US finds itself strangely and disdainfully adrift from the rest of the world’s sporting dreams; it prefers to play, if you’ll excuse the phrase, with itself.

When it comes to international rivalry, America has a gladiatorial preference for individual sports: tennis, golf, boxing, track and field. Perhaps it is because it is, after all, a nation built by immigrants anxious to create something of their own, something better than they had fled. And there’s another thing about immigrants: they are by definition individualists, get-up-and-go merchants, entrepreneurs. The powers-that-be staged football’s World Cup in America in an attempt to capture a vast new television audience for the game; and the cricket World Cup planned for the West Indies will include a similarly motivated leg in Florida. That the US often qualifies for football’s World Cup is more or less a fix – it fights its way through groups including Honolulu, Vanuatu, Grand Cayman and South Georgia, or some such. It still doesn’t work. Amazingly, there isn’t even a world championship in motor racing: the pampered boy-racers of Formula One can never be sure there isn’t a super-fast American buried away somewhere in that well-insulated domestic circuit.

In a way, it’s just as well. If America started to play the rest of the world’s games, the games would change, and not necessarily for the better. I can’t think of much worse than having to swallow the torrent of statistics – the number of yards “rushed” by Martin Johnson, the number of “intercepts” achieved by David Beckham. And imagine a rugby team stuffed with those colossal white-panted bulldozers and high-flyers from American football.

But there is a more intriguing thought. One of the legacies of Britain’s empire was that it exported its games to countries that eventually proved to be better at them than we are. So we’ll know that America’s global empire is receding when the Stuttgart Mets make a run for the World Series, when the Leicester Tigers maul the Washington Redskins in Superbowl LMXXVII, or when Mexico start beating the US in the quarter-finals of the basketball world cup. Even for someone like me, hoping fervently that such a day will never come, there’s pleasure in such thoughts.

Hunter Davies is on holiday