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July 7, 2013

As I write, the Wimbledon men’s final is taking place (one game all in the first set). I won’t be sitting down to watch even if it’s the most perfect summer day, as if made to celebrate the event. And the reason? It’s the worst kind of disguised nationalism I’ve seen, oh, since last year.

In the 60s, when I was growing up and the only tennis tournament that was televised was Wimbledon, it was just as popular as it is now, even though we had no British players to speak of. We made do, as us Brits are wont to, by reminding ourselves of our association with former colonies, like Australia, pleased to cheer on Laver, Rosewall and Roach. The 70s was dominated by those pesky Yanks – McEnroe, Connors and the like – and a few other more respectable Europeans, like Borg. By the 90s, the British public began to be aware that there were other tournaments being played around the world, the other Grand Slam events like the Australian, French and US Open. But, we reasoned, Wimbledon was special – outdoor, on grass and English.

We had John Lloyd for a while (who almost blew it by marrying Chris Evert), and then we had Henman and Rusedski, a Canadian with a name that drew unwelcome comparisons with the interlopers from the East. But when Murray came along, the Englishness dropped out of the game, or at least faded into the background. Now people sported Union Jacks in unlikely places – spectacle frames, underwear, those stupid bouncy antennae strapped to one’s head – but seemingly Murray didn’t want any of it. He didn’t mind the support, but he was happy to let it be known that he was a proud Scot.

That endeared him to me, not because I’m half Scottish myself, but because his dour demeanour downplayed all the hoopla. Last year, he nearly won, which is to say that he got to the final and was squarely beaten in straight sets by the man with precision of a Swiss clock: Federer. This time he’s up against Djokovic, described this morning as a black panther by one observer, and I don’t think he meant a black militant. I don’t know who will win, but everyone seems to be saying that it will be Murray. And if he doesn’t? Then he’ll be the best kind of loser: a plucky Brit.

I should, though, acknowledge that my vague antipathy to Wimbledon is not just based on the nationalist slant, of which the BBC is certainly guilty. It’s partly because it’s a sport I could never play. Squash was easier; I found it quite difficult to hit the ball out of the court. But there’s another factor. In those distant, hot summers, when the air was bright and thick, and all telly was in black and white, my mum used to close the curtains against the glare and hunker down for two weeks, during which time our tea came secondary to the thrill of a white ball bouncing around the standard-ratio frame like a game of Pong and children’s TV programmes were sidelined. Yeah, that’s probably the main reason I don’t like tennis: child abuse.

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