Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Why Murray really needs some True Brit to win at Wimbledon

The further Andy Murray progresses at Wimbledon, the more British he becomes. I was struck by this phenomenon last week as I sat on the Centre Court watching the young Scotsman's early victories.

Wimbledon is the heart of little England; from Kentish strawberries to tumblers of Pimms; from elderly ladies up for the day from Dorset and Hampshire, sheltering from the sun under their floppy hats, to the Royal Box inhabited as usual by the Honourable this and His Excellency that.

The Wimbledon crowd had no problem with the identity of Tim Henman. He was British and English to his racket-strings and the Union Jacks and St George's Crosses fairly fluttered amongst the crowd during the many memorable matches which I watched him play on the famous grass courts.

I still see his father, stiff upper-lipped, always attired formally in his navy blazer and tie, sitting impassively through even the most nail-biting and exciting moments of his son's career. If you were looking for the archetypical middle class, grammar school Englishman, look no further than Henman senior.

Wimbledon pride in Andy Murray has been much more muted than for Henman. Granted, saltires are on display and I did catch the unmistakeable guttural accent of a Scottish spectator roaring: “Cumawn Aandey”.

That is not quite the same as the screaming, flag-waving hysteria of the Henman era and it set me thinking about the importance or otherwise of nationality.

The plain truth is that Murray, like Gordon Brown, is perceived by the English as a dour Scot. Both of them labour under a major public relations disadvantage based on nothing other than their origins and accent. One might ask if a British Prime Minister has to shoulder such a burden of prejudice against him, how much harder is it for a sportsman like Murray to overcome it?

That is nothing, of course, to the prejudice on display over the past month in Northern Ireland which has led to people being driven from their homes and sent packing. Such behaviour shames us all.

The attacks on migrant workers have their origins in the same passionate prejudices provoked by nationality. We are all human beings yet a different accent, language, birth-place or skin-colour, is enough to evoke the most basic instinct in many of us.

Flag-waving and anthem-playing in sport are all very well until they get out of hand. Yet whipping up national fervour is now an important aspect of promoting major sporting events on television.

Take, for example, the Six Nations rugby championship, which is portrayed by the BBC in its promos as nothing less than a war between the countries concerned. Added to that, the fervent singing of the anthems in rugby seems to have taken on as much import as the actual matches.

I think Wimbledon has got it right with no anthems at all. By all means acknowledge that the participating players are from this country or that. There is no need to go further and ram the patriotic message home with some scratchy recording of a Swiss anthem for Roger Federer or the Stars and Stripes for the William sisters. Indeed, heaven forbid that Andy Murray has ever to stand to attention on the Centre Court for a rendering of Flower of Scotland before his first serve.

Of course, we on this island are dab hands at anthem-singing in sport. We love to express our Britishness or Irishness, whether the sportsmen and women who are representing us like it or not.

For example, take Lansdowne Road where the singing lasts so long we should be providing patio heaters for the players to stop them from freezing to death on the spot. How's that for pre-match preparation? National identity can be displayed in many different ways but if its expression leads to embarrassment, dissent, or division, surely managers of sport have a duty to address the problem rather than turn a blind eye to it.

My own hunch is that we are laying far too much store on anthem singing and national identity in sport.

When Manchester United played Barcelona recently in the Champions League final, the occasion was not diminished by the absence of the British or Spanish anthems. Wimbledon is no poorer for having no anthems nor are many other international sporting occasions.

I note that the British and Irish Lions Test team took the field in South Africa without any anthem on its behalf.

Andy Murray is being embraced by the Centre Court crowd now as a True Brit. His success on the court guarantees that. His talent has shone through the prejudice which was ranged against him.

We may sing our anthems. We may raise our flags but we should never forget that disrespect for another person's birthright is the height of uncivilised human behaviour.

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