There was something quintessentially English about Marcus Willis’s fairytale appearance on Centre Court at Wimbledon to take on the mighty Roger Federer.
Here was a hitherto unknown, unfit and undisciplined no-hoper getting thrashed by one of tennis’s all-time greats, and yet we were loving it. Positively lapping it up.
What is it about the English cultural psyche that cheers the plucky loser, as with Willis, but resents the perennnial champion, as we used to do in football with Manchester United, and before them, Liverpool? Why do we actively prefer the gutsy underdog to the serial winner?
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge Willis one moment of his hour-and-a-half in the limelight. I hope his career now goes from strength to strength, although 25 is a bit late to be getting started again. Also, there’s no doubt that for news and novelty value, his story is a lovely one. And I am sure he’s as nice a guy as all his family and vociferous friends say he is.
But it just seems curious to me that within hours of us throwing our hands up in collective horror at the efforts of the England football team, the nation is happy to laud a tennis player who was once sacked for forgetting to take his racquets to training and who, as John McEnroe pointed out in TV commentary, is still palpably too heavy to get around the court properly.
Whenever I watch Wimbledon, it never ceases to amaze me how tennis is consistently able to produce colossuses of the game to meet the demands of all eras.
Back in the 1960s, fans probably thought they would never see better than Rod Laver, and then along came Bjorn Borg, Wimbledon champion five times on the trot between 1976 and 1980.
When I first started taking a proper interest in tennis, I was convinced I would never see better than Pete Sampras, seven-times Wimbledon champion between 1993 and 2000. For me, the American took the game to heights not even previously scaled by the likes of McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker or Steffan Edberg.
But I was so wrong. The post-Millennium era has thrown up the remarkable Federer, who is still mixing it with the cream four years after his seventh success at SW19. A man who has reached ten Wimbledon finals, won 17 Grand Slam singles titles and who was once world number one for 237 consecutive weeks.
Federer is better than Sampras was, but equally, I am now being forced to accept that the clinically consistent Serb, Novak Djokovic, is even better than Federer and probably the greatest player tennis has ever seen. In statistical comparison, the 29-year-old has a paltry three Wimbledon titles to his name and a measly 12 Grand Slams. But he is currently only the third man in history, and the first since Laver, to hold all four major titles at once. What’s more, he is the first ever to do so on three different surfaces. And he shows no sign of regression.
As renowned tennis coach Nick Bollettieri says, Djokovic is the most complete player, both technically and mentally, to grace the sport. Let’s not forget either that he has earned his place on the ultimate tennis pedestal at a time when top-class competition, provided not just by Federer but also by Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, is incredibly fierce.
Glancing down the mouthwatering roll of honour of tennis greats, from Laver to Djokovic, I find myself asking: why can’t England football managers be like Wimbledon champions? Instead the list of men to have bossed our national team in our national sport is almost the complete polar opposite.
Since Sir Alf, and lest we forget that even he failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, we have endured a litany of under-achievement, mixed with downright disaster. For Bjorn Borg, read Don Revie. For Pete Sampras, read Ron Greenwood. For Roger Federer, read Graham Taylor. And for Novak Djokovic, read Steve McClaren. And here we are again, at that crossroads where we must pick another fall-guy to guide us towards our next tournament calamity.
The onerous task of appointment falls upon the FA’s chief executive Martin Glenn. I am perturbed by his admission that he is “not a football man”. But I am perked up by his determination to find the right man, whether he be English, foreign or even, dare I mention the word any more, European.
Of the English managers to have taken the job previously, only Bobby Robson and Terry Venables deserve exemption from criticism. Of those touted for the current vacancy, the number who are suitable and/or available is zero, given that even the basic CV requirements should be trophies on the sideboard and international stature. Those promoting Glenn Hoddle need to be reminded he has been out of management for ten years.
I suspect Sam Allardyce will end up in the hotseat. And good luck to a man who has precious few honours to his name and has based his managerial style on damage limitation, albeit very successfully.
However, sports such as rugby and cricket have demonstrated the rewards England can reap from overseas influence. The FA should not be put off by the failure of Fabio Capello’s regime. After all, history is beginning to write that Sven-Goran Eriksson did not do a bad job. I fear the post comes too late in the career for Arsene Wenger who, in my view, should have replaced Capello. But Glenn and his cohorts must scour the globe for Roy Hodgson’s successor, even if the Brexit message might encourage insularity.
Otherwise, we might just as well employ Marcus Willis.