Is a sporting contest worth anything without an audience? The answer to this question is undoubtedly, Yes: my squash fixture against Ben the Hat is a key focal point of my week, and I take it most seriously, fitness wise – I never drink more than one glass of wine the night before. The outcome is important, but the participation is more important: what we’re both looking for is to be wrung out and fit only to be scraped up off the floor at the end of it, to experience at least forty minutes of a week when our minds are empty of everything excepting the activity in hand. Whether anyone watches it or not is of no consequence (though spectators would learn something about the limits to which gamesmanship can be stretched, if they watched me closely when it came to the matter of time-wasting and running down the clock if a defeat looks likely and there is only a minute or two to go). If anyone passing took the slightest interest they might say something like, ‘The black shirt seems to be losing to the green shirt; the green shirt has better shots, doesn’t he, and the black shirt isn’t controlling the T at all.’
But our activity is amateur and whether there’s anyone analysing the black shirt’s failings like that, or not, makes no difference to any of it. Professional sport would be so diminished without the crowd that it would almost cease to exist, we would be edging towards philosophical tree-falling-in-a forest territory: if no one but the players and the ref went to the Emirates this afternoon, would an event take place?
This morning, along, I imagine, with millions of others, I got out of bed early to watch Andy Murray play Roger Federer, and as such I was part of the congregation that made the event what is was. In the culture of television now, nothing about any sporting contest must be kept hidden from the public – the cameraman would follow them into the showers afterwards if he could and a gallery of experts would comment on their soaping techniques. As I switched on Murray was walking, a few paces ahead of Federer, along the corridors of the clubhouse towards the court itself. He was carrying his bag of rackets like a schoolboy carries his rucksack, straps over both shoulders, thumbs tucked under the straps, and in this moment he looked rather vulnerable. As they stepped outside a voice off camera said, ‘Have a good match, guys.’ The players barely replied.
During this build up, four out of four experts – Boris Becker and Tim Henman in London and David Lloyd and Chris Bailey courtside – predicted a win for Murray. The only way I could account for this was jingoism, or, in Becker’s case, saying what he felt was most politic, which is an improvement over his alternative act of ‘being a character’. The stats offered something in the way of support for the unanimous predictions, after a fashion. Murray’s 6-4 head-to-head record looks good on paper but none of his victories took place within this context, the theatre of a grand slam final, where there is more to it than tennis, where it becomes a test of mentality. Rather, Murray’s wins took place on those satellite tournaments in Doha and the like, where perhaps Roger had other things on his mind, like looking over the designs for gold monogrammed baby-gros for the new arrival. In any event, if I was punting (this blog has not got a leg to stand on in that matter after yesterday’s abject efforts at Cheltenham, nor indeed has it anything to use as stake money), but if I was punting I’d have been happy to take the general 8-13 offered about the Swiss, a man who has, after all, triumphed in such an arena and such a situation fifteen (now sixteen) times to Murray’s nought.
Federer served first and took the first two games without trouble. I thought that Murray had had it, but he played a sequence of sensational passing shots that were also ‘gets’ to break back in the third game and I revised my first opinion: perhaps we were in for a contest. The players sweated up fast, and Federer changed one azure shirt for another at 4-3. The shirt was described by Trezza as stylish, and it was added that it suited him. Murray wore a darker blue Adidas item with yellow side panels that, ‘looked as if it came from the bargain rail at JJB Sports.’ I agreed with all of this but had to note that Federer chooses to have creases down the front of his shorts, an absolute fashion no-no. Federer won the first set. At the change over, Murray broke a crucial code of sport in an extraordinary way. He too needed to change his shirt. He put on a new top, in the same design as the JJB Adidas, but this was white with blue side panels. The global audience who had tuned in to watch the dark blue shirt play the pale blue shirt, (Italy vs Uruguay, in football terms) now found themselves watching a different match altogether as the predominantly white shirt came out to face the pale blue shirt (Leeds vs Uruguay). In this moment Murray reconnected himself with the kid who had walked the back corridor with his thumbs tucked under the straps of his rucksack; in this moment he made himself a boy in a man’s world. In this single dumb gesture he lost his identity and put the match beyond himself. This sounds facetious, but it’s not: if you start as the dark blue shirt you must end as the dark blue shirt because, as far as the matter in hand is concerned, that is who you are. Even at the level of Myself vs Ben the Hat this holds true. I can’t believe his ‘team’ allowed him do it; the psychology of it is shocking.
Don’t mess with codes of sport: it’s the reds v the blues from kick-off all the way to match point