Bar to success

TWO important sporting lessons to learn from the past 24 hours: 1) Britain will never be the best in the world at a sport you can’t play in the rain. 2) Britain can still rule the world at any sport you can play in a pub.

Whether Andy Murray will go on to fill the Tim Henman role of raising British hopes of a Wimbledon triumph summer after summer, only to dash them each year by losing in the quarter-finals to an East European with a bigger serve, only time will tell. But he’s already getting into the pattern.

Murray is not Henman. The hair is bigger, the attitude is bigger, and I can’t ever, ever, ever see Murray doing an advert for washing powder. But he’s the best we’ve got at tennis now, and so he must prepare to suffer exactly as Henman did for two weeks every June for more than a decade, being fawned over by Sue Barker, being followed everywhere by Garry Richardson.

After winning the Qatar Open, those who know more about tennis than I do talked of 2008 being a good year for Murray. Going into the Australian Open, he said that he had never felt in better shape for a Grand Slam. But after he crashed out in the first round to the admittedly decent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, perhaps it’s time to just pull back on the excitement a little.

In fact, let me get all the summer hype out of the way now, by answering the question: “Can Andy Murray win Wimbledon this year?” No. No, he can’t. He is seeded ninth in the world, which means there are currently eight other players who are better than him, one of whom will win Wimbledon.

So if you go to the All England Championships this year, get yourself some strawberries and cream, paint your face with a Union Jack by all means, sing along to Cliff Richard if you must and moan about the weather. But do not, I repeat, do not expect a British victory, because it will not happen.

I only really follow tennis properly during Wimbledon, and most of the British players always seem out of place there. In fact, watching the tournament, I’m reminded of childhood Sunday afternoons at my grandparents’ house in Wolverhampton, watching Ski Sunday on BBC2.

After watching Franz Klammer and Co hurtle down the slopes at frightening speeds, separated by fractions of a second, it would be the plucky Brit’s turn – usually Graham Bell – to slide down about five seconds and 50 places slower than the leading pack, to David Vine’s audible disappointment. In skiing, as in tennis, the Brits seemed like interlopers, waiting to be ejected.

There are two reasons why we will not have a British winner at Wimbledon in the near future. One is that Britain only has the right weather for playing outdoor grass tennis for about three days of the year, so any young hopeful who wants to be any good has to do a lot of training abroad, which costs a lot of money. The other is that you can’t play tennis in pubs, which is where a large percentage of British teenagers spend most of their time.

It’s not a coincidence that the only two sports that Britain still wins world titles at on any kind of regular basis are snooker and darts. Welshman Mark Webster carried off the BDO World Darts Championship last night, beating Simon Whitlock in the final.

In the tradition of true British sporting heroes, Webster said after his victory that he has no intention of giving up his day job as a plumber just yet.

“It probably makes sense to carry on with plumbing, but then again I’m world champion now,” said Webster, who must now ponder whether to go full-time and join the rival PDC darts circuit, which is where most of the money is.

If we want to be this successful on the tennis court, there is only one solution. Clear out the beer gardens, and put tennis courts at the back of all our pubs. Within 20 years, I guarantee we’ll have a Wimbledon champion.

The bad news is that it will mean there’ll be another Richard Curtis movie to follow up that ludicrous one that had Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst in it. But I, for one, am willing to pay that price, as I just won’t go and see it.


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