LONDON – Before last week, anyway, Great Britain was known as a country of cool analysis, not hot passion. It’s the Land of the Stiff Upper Lip, the Oxbridge reserve. As Churchill once said, his was a country of light, not heat. From British literature to art to the parliamentary government, reason and thoughtful detachment trumped fervor and impetuous emotion.
Which makes British sports culture especially mystifying. An hour after play ended at Wimbledon Monday night, England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016. To most of this world, this was an endearing Underdog Tale, movie rights still available. To Brits, it was something else entirely. The superlatives came fast and furious. Worst. Baddest. Most humiliating. The otherwise staid BBC interviewed fans around the country, none of them tempering their disappointment. “I’m ashamed to be British right now,” said one man. Otherwise responsible newspapers (they still do newspapers here) were quick to call Wayne Rooney “awful.” It was a foregone conclusion that after the game—one game, lost by a score of 2-1—the coach would resign in ignominy. Which he did. This was a nationwide parade of self-loathing, self-defeatism and the most scalding of hot takes.
Watching this unfold, you come away with a renewed appreciation for Andy Murray. Imagine being an up-and-coming sportsman attempting to pull off an historical achievement against this backdrop—“negativity” as an athlete would put it—knowing that a defeat will become both a national referendum and, inevitably, a character assassination. Imagine, enduring all sorts of close calls— and accompanying stories about your “colossal disappointment” told with a tone that would make Morrissey look like an optimist—and accomplishing your goal, anyway. And then imagine being asked, “What’s next?”
Since winning Wimbledon in 2013, Murray has not regressed. He has not gotten fat off the land or dined out on his laurels. He’s remained in the top five, winning big matches and reaching Grand Slam finals, two already this year. But he hasn’t won another major; meanwhile his peer, Novak Djokovic has won majors than he’s lost. Murray’s Wimbledon title hasn’t curdled. It never will. But as he fails to keep up with Djokovic, it’s provoked another round of woe-is-thee and a sense that somehow these shortcomings mirror a national shortcoming.
Murray won his first round match on Tuesday against Liam Broady, cruising in three drama-devoid sets. There’s much more tennis left to be played, of course. Djokovic is seeking to his fifth straight major. But, if only as a thought exercise, imagine what would happen if Murray were to Brexit this tournament with his second title. How confounding would that be to the British sports culture?
Five takeaways from Day 2 on Tuesday
• Juan Martin del Potro won his first Grand Slam match since the 2014 Australian Open (the last slam he played) beating Stephane Robert in straight sets, 6-1, 7-5, 6-0. Stan Wawrinka looms—the rare second rounder among two major champs.
• Serena Williams kicked off her title defense with a B-level 6-2, 6-4 win over Swiss qualifier Amra Sadikovic. Williams, of course, hasn’t won a major since last year’s Wimbledon. The good news: she got through today; as she has done in all but one of her first round Grand Slam matches. The less good news: her level must improve over the next six rounds.
• Nick Kyrgios is always a player to watch. And lately it’s been for the right reasons. Today he won a potentially tough match, beating Radek Stepanek, who was making a bid to become the oldest player to win a Grand Slam match since Jimmy Connors at the 1991 U.S. Open.
• Playing his first main draw Wimbledon match, Taylor Fritz fell to Stan Wawrinka, but fell admirably, taking a set and playing competitively. Here’s a discussion we were having. What’s more preferable for a 19-year-old up-and-comer? Winning a round or two against no-name competition on a backcourt? Or losing, but playing well, against a high seed on a big court?
• He won’t be on Court 6 for long, Alexander Zverev. But playing there today, the 19-year-old German was having little trouble with Paul-Henri Mathieu, cruising to a 6–3, 6–4, 3–0 lead, before play was suspended due to rain. The match will resume on Wednesday.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Gotta admire Maria right? She thought she would just put this time to good use by taking B’school classes at Harvard. #Respect? Are you surprised?
• Beats sitting home with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. The connection? Several years ago, a marketing professor used Sharapova as a case study. Both she and her agent have been to Harvard since then for various guest appearances.
Jon, you haven’t done a WTHIGOW (What the heck is going on with) in a long time. So I’ll give you one: Ana Ivanovic. How much longer can she keep going at this rate?
—Bill, Los Angeles
• We haven’t used that designation in a while, have we? I’ll give you one: Anna Schmiedlova. She won a title in 2015 and was up to No. 26. This year has been an abject disaster. After losing to Simona Halep in the first round here, she is now up to 15 straight tour level losses and is 2-17 on the year. Every player goes through streaks and slumps. But when the train goes off the tracks this dramatically, you fear the psychic scar tissue is long-lasting. (See: Bouchard, Genie)
Where were we? Oh, right, Ivanovic. We were just talking about her on Tennis Channel yesterday. Yes, she’s almost 29 now; and her next ranking will be an even bigger number. But I don’t look for her to retire. She is still capable to top-tier tennis. And her significant other, Bastian Schweinsteiger, has been openly encouraging that he would like Ivanovic to keep playing, provided that’s what she wants to do. I would discount AI’s defeat at Wimbledon. She had a bad wrist and would likely have withdrawn had it been another event.
Why Konta-Puig match isn’t scheduled at Center Court? Wozniacki and Kuznetsova instead?
• The All-England Club should come in for credit for their lack of provincialism/homerism. They don’t give all the wild cards to homegrown players, once going so far as to assert openly that undeserving players ain’t getting a free pass. They don’t slather the grounds and programs with images of British players. And there isn’t favoritism with court assignments.
Konta is the best female British player in a looong time. Outside the top 100 a year ago, she is now inside the top 20. For that matter Puig is an ascending player as well. But Wozniacki is a former No. 1 and Kuznetsova is a multiple Grand Slam champ. Even right now, they have a higher combined ranking than Puig/Konta. Good for the organizers for realizing as much.
Maybe it’s just my imagination, but in my observation it seems that more women than men in professional tennis have trouble with the service toss. I mean, we’ve seen horrible problems with Sharapova and Ivanovic in recent years, and Laura Robson had multiple issues with this in her match vs. Angelique Kerber on Monday. Do you think it is more of a problem for the women, and why would that be if true?
• Interesting. I am answering while watching Serena AND her opponent struggle with their tosses. I don’t believe there’s data here, but I can ask our friends at Hawk-eye. I have not noticed a difference between genders. What I have noticed: players like Sharapova and Giorgi and Bernard Tomic, known to have issues with their serves, have issues with their tosses when the match tightens. Also, it stands to reasons that players with a high ball-toss are more likely to experience trouble.
• Good soldiering, the Tennis Channel Wimbledon Prime Time show starts at 4:30 p.m. ET.
• The Western Southern Open is looking for energized, dedicated, and hard-working individuals to assist within the areas of access scanning, transportation drivers, ushers, and marshals. Join the ranks of the 1300 volunteers for the 2016 event. Shifts are still available every day of the tournament.
• Press releasing: Top American tennis stars John Isner and Stevie Johnson, as well as former ATP Pros James Blake and Michael Russell, are among the partners in a newly-launched gluten free energy bar called ArrowBar, a gluten-free, all-natural, high performance, 200-calorie energy bar offered in two flavors, chocolate chip and cinnamon honey oat. Bars are available for purchase online at www.ArrowBar.com.