Football can learn manners from doubles delight
I dislike tennis with a passion. Mostly on the basis of intermittently watching so many spoilt Brit rich kids, Tim Henman and Andy Murray apart, spectacularly underachieve in recent years, despite generous – and yet so thoroughly ill-deserved – funding from the Lawn Tennis Association.
Last weekend, though, I was drawn to the men’s doubles final at Wimbledon featuring Jonny Marray and Frederik Nielsen, the Anglo-Danish combo, against Robert Lindstedt, of Sweden, and Horia Tecau, the Romanian. And I found myself utterly entranced as the fairytale unfolded, with Marray and Nielsen winning 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3.
Marray, the journeyman Brit, was the star, with Nielsen so restricted by a wrist injury that, towards the end, he could barely muster a backhand shot of any note. At times, he was little more than a helpless bystander. But Marray, in the ultimate example of teamwork, nursed him through. It was inspiring stuff.
I must admit, the constant high-fiving, low-fiving and knuckle-prods between partners after every point irritated me in the extreme. Especially when one of the players had made a blatant error. Why big-up your colleague when he has just made a cock-up? Again, though, I suppose it was teamwork, the all-for-one-and-one-for-all ethic above individual ecstacy or dismay.
Goodness knows were we to get this in football so regularly. Striker misses sitter, team-mates hug him. Defender misses tackle leading to goal, team-mates shower him with praise/encouragement. Of course, footballers are mostly so self-absorbed that this would not happen, anyway. Many an error is often greeted with poorly disguised disdain or disbelief.
I wasn’t enamoured during the doubles, either, by the whispered instructions of the players to each other before every serve. OK, tactics are vital, but before every point? It got so tiring and time-consuming that surely the umpire should have warned them for delaying the game. Which, of course, he did not.
Again, apply it to football – colleagues staging a mini-conference, to discuss strategy, prior to every free kick, goal kick, throw-in, corner or penalty. The game would swiftly degenerate into a stop-start farce, with the referee frequently having to intervene to tell the guys to get on with it.
Adopt tennis-style chit-chats at each restart and the time-wasting, already a monotonous ploy of teams hanging on near the end, would become even worse. And yet so few football set-pieces rarely go to plan, anyway – with or without an extensive pre-kick exchange of views.
No, football has little to learn from tennis. They are sports apart, poles apart. Apart from, perhaps, the entrenched team ethos of the doubles pairings and the enchanting rags-to-riches story of Marray, which reminds me of the many endearing comparisons thrown up when highly paid giants take on the semi-professional minnows in the FA Cup third round.
Consider the Marray tale: In 12 years as a pro, he had won £277,000 in prize-money. On Saturday, he won £130,000. It was his first match on Wimbledon’s Centre Court; he had only one playing shirt, which was cleaned every day. And he and Nielsen defeated four of the top nine seeds to clinch the title.
Thinking again, there is one huge lesson that football can learn from tennis – sportsmanship. In the third-set tie-break, Marray followed through on a winning volley but brushed the top of the net with his racket. No one saw it but he immediately acknowledged the “foul” and conceded the point. Such morality was rewarded when M&N went on to win the set.
Could you see this happening in football? “Sorry, ref, I handled it”, “No, it wasn’t a pen, I slipped”, “It was a foul, of course it was. I caught him”. Hell will freeze over first. Sadly, the divers, cheats and charlatans will continue to prosper in the relentless pursuit of three points or cup success.
Yes, I still hate tennis. But Saturday provided a fascinating glimpse into another sporting world. And, for most of the five sets, I thoroughly enjoyed it.