February 23, 2018
As our favourite tennis players wait to go onto Centre Court for a Wimbledon final, they have the chance to look up and read some famous words:
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…”
They come from Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem “If…”
It is a lesson in how to stay level-headed, calm and strong, how to avoid succumbing to life’s emotional rollercoaster, how to win well and lose well.
Don’t be unduly influenced by victory or defeat – especially not defeat. That seems to be the final message to our top tennis players as they step out to do gladiatorial battle in the most famous arena of them all.
Message received? Well, the last few years have proved something. Either the players don’t read poetry, or they don’t all understand English, or else they understand English…but not what the words mean. Or maybe they just don’t look up before they go out on Centre Court?
There is another explanation, of course. They have all decided: “Stuff Kipling and his stiff upper lip.”
Look at Marin Cilic last year. Painful blisters were enough to tell Marin he couldn’t beat Roger Federer on the day. He couldn’t give his best to the final. He was going to lose. (Let’s face it, he was losing anyway).
Suddenly Cilic, the rugged giant from Croatia, was bawling his eyes out in front of thousands on Centre Court and TV millions too.
What would Kipling have made of that?
The late Jana Novotna cried most memorably of all, when she squandered a winning position against Steffi Graf in the 1993 women’s final. The fact that she chose the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder to cry on was unusual.
One doesn’t usually even talk to royals – let alone cry on them. It’s not supposed to be the British way.
But the Duchess calmly told Jana she would win it one day…and she did.
Not the British way? Hang on a minute, didn’t Andy Murray cry when he lost the 2012 Wimbledon final? Didn’t he break down completely, his voice strangled into high-pitched anguish, an agony of pressure and frustration, felt by even the most cold-hearted cynic?
Suddenly the weight of expectation seemed so cruel, as he told us he was at least getting closer to making us happy by winning Wimbledon.
We began to wonder whether trying to make us happy was making Andy too unhappy. Was it all worth it? But again, he came good in the end. And boy, were we all happy for him then.
Another who tugged on the heart strings was Sabine Lisicki, during her slightly unexpected hammering by Marion Bartoli in the 2013 final.
Yes, during – not after. It only took a few explosive games for the German, who had been the darling of Wimbledon that year, to realise she was going to be blasted off court – and there was nothing she could do about it.
Once the waterworks were in full flow, there was definitely nothing she could do about it. She couldn’t really see properly and kept having to wipe her eyes as the ball flew past her.
But fear not, because even the very greatest of them all blubs like a baby too. Roger Federer! He lost the most dramatic Wimbledon final of them all back in 2008 in near darkness. The five-setter was truly epic, it had everything.
As Nadal was hailed the winner, and the world celebrated the glory of the game, Federer took pity on himself and cried, and cried…and cried some more.
And you know the irony? Federer can be found online reciting Kipling’s poem, along with Nadal. And you know what? Federer in particular speaks the words of the poem superbly. With feeling. He just doesn’t do what the words say. Or does he?
Kipling asked us to treat triumph and disaster just the same, right? So good old Roger may have had that in mind when he collapsed into floods of tears once more, as the winner of his twentieth Grand Slam, in Australia earlier this year.
Who cares about the result? Win or lose, just stand there and cry. A lot. People love it!
Seriously, should we be hard on any of these players? They may have got Rudyard Kipling spinning in his grave, but haven’t times changed?
Sport is entertainment, it is real-life drama, and we want to see the full emotional range from our favourite actors, don’t we?
Crying used to be a total no-no, especially in Britain. But if you had to cry, it was always better to cry when you won, not when you lost. Now the message is different. Just blub anyway. It’s the answer to everything. People suddenly see a sportsman as warm and loveable. Their stock rises.
We loved Jana Novotna for crying on a royal. Still do, bless her. It was so human! We loved Andy Murray for being vulnerable instead of remote and sarcastic. We even loved Cilic for crying, didn’t we? Didn’t he become a little less mechanical and scary?
Sabine’s emotional collapse was heart-breaking but what theatre! What raw pain, with nowhere to hide!
As for Federer, we love him whether he cries or not.
But hey, Roger chose to join the Weepies, so that’s good enough for us.
What about Kipling’s words? Are triumph and disaster still to be treated as imposters on a tennis court? Should we refuse to react to them? Or should we see them for the emotionally-charged tidal waves they are, and go with the flow?
Maybe, just maybe, it is time for Kipling’s words to be replaced above that entrance to Centre Court. But if so, what with?
“Get ready. You are about to join the Blub Club.”
Not very poetic. But possibly more realistic than Rudyard in the twenty-first century.