In a piece on Michael Jordan’s return to basketball after his baseball detour in Birmingham, occasional sports writer David Remnick writes, “part of why we cleave to sports and fandom (besides the sheer escapism) is that excellence is so measureable, so knowable in numbers.” Collectively as sports fans, we seem obsessed with numbers of all types. This obsession has been front and center in the frenzy surrounding Andy Murray’s win at Wimbledon on Sunday.
The number in question?
Seventy-seven: the years that have passed since a Brit — Fred Perry — last won the grass tournament. Pick up most any story on the win, and reference to that duration of years will appear in the first few paragraphs. Why the interest with this number? As the intensity on the faces of British fans could attest, inside Centre Court and outside on Henman Hill, this was about a British player winning a quintessentially British tournament. But it was also about something more, something deeper.
For the moment at least, Great Britain could collectively return to 1936, when Perry won his third Wimbledon title in a row, the British Empire seemed intact, and Brits were the moral center of a Europe that was about to change drastically. The Empire, of course, had started cracking some years before, but with empires, as in life, things fall apart long before we actually realize it.
Nearly 30 years ago, Salman Rushdie published a tidy essay called “Outside the Whale” about the imperial nostalgia overtaking Britain in the early 1980s, when so many movies and television shows were coming out about the British in India. The Murray frenzy may not suggest the same full-blown nostalgia, but it does show how much of our sports fandom — even in the period between Olympics — is about national pride. After Murray’s victory, Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted his congratulations, and the Queen was supposed to have sent Murray a private word. The victory certainly touched a national nerve.
Wimbledon is a tournament filled with all sorts of pomp and circumstance — the whites the players have to wear, the royalty, the strawberries and cream — that many of us bear for the sake of the remarkable play that inevitably ends up occurring on the court. Wimbledon expects a certain decorum from its players, and no one player has embodied it better than Roger Federer, with his dandyish ways, his graceful play and his seven Wimbledon titles. Federer became the stand-in for the proper Victoria gentleman winning Britain’s marquee tournament.
And now, finally, Britain gets the real thing in Murray.
Though one does have to wonder whether Murray feels any ambivalence about being crowned a British champion. He is, after all, Scottish, and for the sake of brevity, let me just point you to “Braveheart” and say that the relationship between the English and the Scots has not always been perfect.
One of the most interesting stories for me in this victory is that the man rightfully getting some of the credit for helping Murray go from runner up to major champion is Ivan Lendl, the former No. 1 player in the world, winner of eight major championships and Murray’s current coach. This is the same Lendl who came to represent a certain Eastern Bloc cold meanness in the 1980s, the same Lendl who tried so hard to win this tournament but couldn’t, and now the same Lendl who has helped Britain finally land a British champion at Wimbledon after a long drought.
The thrill of Murray’s victory is not that it ended the drought. But rather that the victory is the culmination of a remarkable single year of tennis starting with Murray’s tough defeat against Federer one year ago in the Wimbledon finals. Since then, he has won gold at the London Olympics, and won the US Open and now Wimbledon, the latter two against Novak Djokovic, the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Along with these victories, these are the numbers that seem important. On Sunday, with 15,000 people watching inside the stands, thousands more just outside, and many more watching on television, Murray channeled all the cheers and expectations into his grinding groundstrokes and won the match of his life.