Ever the opportunist, Nigel Farage has become Novak Djokovic’s most vocal advocate. On the face of it, this is a little peculiar. Farage is not only a professed devotee of Australia’s immigration policy, in particular ‘its points-based system’, but has built his political identity out of racialising and vilifying Eastern Europeans. Ahead of Farage’s meeting with the Djokovic family in Serbia (who either did no research on Novak’s ‘friend’ or liked what they found), Andy Murray tweeted: ‘Please record the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to have people from Eastern Europe deported.’ But Farage’s worldview is one of hierarchies and exemptions. He cites the ‘rule of law’ when it comes to borders, but flouted the Covid lockdown in May 2020 – as it happens, on the same day as the Downing Street garden party – to strike out into the English Channel on a fishing boat and film dinghies of asylum seekers.
‘Will this be the last time I see him?’ I wondered as I trod the familiar route down Wimbledon Park Road on Monday. I was off to see Roger Federer – a month away from his fortieth birthday – taking on Lorenzo Sonego in the fourth round. There were two other matches scheduled on Centre Court – Novak Djokovic against Cristian Garin, and 17-year-old Coco Gauff against the former number one Angelique Kerber – but both felt almost beside the point. That’s the danger with extreme partisanship: it can suck the excitement out of everything else. When I watch other players, I judge them by Federer’s standards. And no one measures up.
I’ve been to Wimbledon twice this week. On Monday, I turned up at 8 a.m. and took my place in line for a ticket for the following day. Since each day’s order of play is only announced the previous evening, this was the one way I could be certain of seeing Roger Federer. There were 100 or so tents ahead of me, which meant I was definitely among the first 500, giving me a choice of any court. (When Andy Murray is playing, two nights’ camping is required.) I pitched my tent and spent most of the next 14 hours lounging around outside my tent or, when it was raining, inside it. I was occasionally tempted to sneak off, but a plummy-voiced steward told me that absences of more than an hour were likely to result in expulsion.
As finals go, it wasn’t brilliant. But maybe that was for the best. As the commentators kept reminding us, yesterday’s match was all about ending ‘77 years of pain'. Had it been anything like as close as predicted, the pain involved in causing the pain to end might have been too much for Tim Henman, Sue Barker et al to bear. As it was, the only moment of overt tension came at the end of the third set, when Murray, serving for the match at 5-4, got to 40-0 before Djokovic pulled him back to deuce, and then had a chance to break. Had Murray lost that game, who knows what might have happened? But that particular avenue of heartbreak was avoided. To the conspicuous delight of David Cameron (front row of the Royal Box), Alex Salmond (second) and a pair of Hollywood actors who kept their jackets on throughout despite the heat, Murray won. How much does 'the country' really care?
Public crying has to pass some pretty stringent tests to get my approval. I don't think of myself as stoical, nor, certainly, would anyone who knows me; I moan and complain to a gold standard. But I have an aversion to crying in front of strangers, even familiars, and especially those waiting for me to do so - those boxes of tissues that shrinks have, and push forward as a spur to tearing up, for example, make a desert of me. I was once invited to cry in front of the whole school for my wrong doing, but chose to make my inner cheek bleed in preference. I can sort of see the point of crying on achievement after enormous effort, and even feel the prick in my own eye. But mine was, apparently, the only dry eye in the country (both countries, Scotland and 'Britain') at the tearfulness displayed by Andy Murray on losing a Wimbledon final.
So he’s done it again. After two and a half of years of wandering in the wilderness of, well, not mediocrity exactly, but second or third best-ness, after climbing the small foothills of adversity, a twingey back, a few disappointing chokes, a couple of kids, after going four sets with Britain’s first Wimbledon finalist since Bunny Austin, Federer is once again the number one player in the world. Terrific. I never liked Federer.
Having played quite brilliantly to crush the nation’s alternative outlet of sporting patriotism, Rafael Nadal's destiny in tomorrow's Wimbledon final seems clear: he will complete his comeback from last year's injury-induced loss of form to win his second consecutive Grand Slam and prove, once more, that he’s easily the best player in the world. But to do that he must beat Thomas Berdych, an opponent he can’t have contemplated facing at the start of the tournament. Berdych hasn’t exactly come from nowhere – he reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros and is seeded 12th at Wimbledon – but it’s still a major shock for him to have got this far, especially as he had to beat both Federer and Djokovic to do so. If he beats Nadal tomorrow, he would be Wimbledon’s most improbable winner since Richard Krajicek in 1996.
Sport is very different when mediated by a television camera. On screen, you lose all sense of a ball's true speed, of the players' astonishing agility. Roger Federer's forehand on TV is still a thing of beauty, but it's something you can (almost) take for granted. Seeing it for real is a useful, if crushing, reminder of how far removed it is from anything you could come up with yourself. On two consecutive nights last week, thanks to some generous colleagues at the newspaper where I work, I went to the ATP World Tour tennis finals at the O2 arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) in Greenwich. The organisers went for maximum American-style razzmatazz. Before the players came out there was a long build-up involving flashing lights, a rousing voiceover, and clips of interviews displayed on giant screens suspended from the ceiling.
To much general British disappointment, Andy Murray hasn't made it to this year's Wimbledon final. I was distracted during his defeat at the hands of Andy Roddick by the insignia on the sleeve of his generally quite tasteful Fred Perry shirt. Subtler than Roddick's black armbands, the logo of the Royal Bank of Scotland was still highly visible throughout the tournament. Cause, then, beyond mere patriotism, to get behind Murray: having bailed RBS out to the tune of who knows how many billions, British taxpayers aren't just Murray's supporters, they're his de facto sponsors, too.
Everyone I know hates him, but – God forgive me – I go a bit gooey for Andy Murray. Usually I can hide it well enough but there he was last week, topless, on the cover of granny's favourite listings magazine. And there again, winning Queen's and ripping his knuckle-skin on his racket strings. And then there, winning his first round match at Wimbledon and slagging off all the other British players for being damp squibs.