So Wimbledon is upon us once again. One of my favourite times of the year. Also, undoubtedly one of my least productive times! As I look back over the years I have watched this wonderful tournament, it has got me thinking about some of the greatest showmen in this beautiful sport.
My favourite player ever was the super cool Swede, Bjorn Borg, who won the Men’s Singles title five times in a row in the late seventies. Of all the players of that era, Borg arguably solicited more cries of “Oh I say!” from the equally legendary commentator Dan Maskell than any other. I was almost in tears when he finally lost in the 1981 final to John McEnroe.
Borg was a completely unique player. I can barely recall ever hearing him speak (he must have done press conferences I guess but perhaps I wasn’t interested in what he had to say as a kid) but the focus was always on his amazing ability to buck the serve and volley trend which was still dominant back then. He had a mystique about him that was almost mythical and his utter brilliance on the court and relative silence under pressure was his show if you like. I remember he had a tradition that from the first day of Wimbledon every year, he stopped shaving and so by the time, he lifted the trophy year in, year out, he would sport a classic blond beard alongside his long, rock star-like hair. It was a long time before anyone captured my heartfelt support again, until finally, the ultimate showman from Las Vegas itself, Andre Agassi blazed his way onto the scene.
So what is it about the showman? They say the public loves an underdog and yes, I guess we do. But we also adore a showman who displays scintillating skills – however inconsistently – that mesmerise us. In short, they are the sporting equivalent of our favourite TV and movie heroes who take us away to a world where anything is possible. Most of all, we love a showman who has learnt how to be consistent in the midst of their almost supernatural brilliance, because they provide us with even more occasions to celebrate than we imagined possible. People like Ronnie O’Sullivan in snooker, Andre Agassi, Rafa Nadal. Contrast these guys with others who won even more trophies but who somehow, relatively soon after their initial burst on to the scene, appeared to win repeatedly with almost robotic precision. So much so, that for many of us, there was very little to love. People like Steve Davis and Pete Sampras, or Michael Schumacher from Formula 1 racing.
The best tennis players in the world almost invariably practise what is known as “percentage tennis”. That is, a wide variety of shots that they know will serve them well overall, so long as they play their normal game. The very best players of today’s game like Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray aka The Big Four consistently play their percentage tennis but are good enough to take it up a level if they are losing or in a very close struggle against each other, and they can do so with some extraordinary shot-making and still win the crucial points they need to clinch victory.
What is fascinating however, is when a showman (let’s call them a “showplayer”) finds himself playing against one of the The Big Four for example. The only way they can have a chance of winning is if they play to their strengths. That is, non-percentage tennis. Shots that most players wouldn’t dream of attempting, unless forced to do so. This of course, is the complete opposite strategy to the top player. The French currently have these showplayers in spades and have always had one or two around at the same time. Henri Leconte was a fabulous example in the eighties. Yannick Noah was another, and the last Frenchman to win the French Open in 1983. Today they have Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gael Monfils. They are like musketeers with a tennis racket and on their day, can beat anyone in the world. But this is where sadly, they fall down. Their brilliance is exquisite to watch but their inconsistency forbids them from achieving what their potential promised when they began their careers.
In a match last month at the French Open, Andy Murray found himself up against yet another flamboyant Frenchman, Jeremy Chardy. The commentator, a former champion himself, Jim Courier, began to explain the dynamics of what this is all about, “Murray is the house and Chardy is the gambler. Chardy has to throw the dice because that is the only way he can win. They don’t keep building casinos because they think the gamblers are going to come out on top, but some of them do get the roll of the dice.”
So what of the Samprases and Davises of the sporting world? They knew how to focus on their work and perhaps that was the crucial difference when it came to total achievement by the time they retired from their chosen field. They saw it as their work, not merely a fun way to earn tons of cash and lap up the adulations of endless females. Sure they were not as entertaining as the other guys. But then they were not there to entertain primarily. They were there to win. And win they did. A lot. So much so that you could argue it even became a bit boring. This was one of the reasons why Steve Davis earned the nickname Steve “Interesting” Davis. During the nineties, when Pete Sampras dominated for much of that decade, I actually got bored of watching him win yet another consecutive Wimbledon Men’s Singles title. Three stroke rallies or less with the same guy lifting the trophy was not my idea of good sport, let alone entertainment.
For us mere mortals who have to carve out other, less glamorous, yet equally creative ways of earning a living, being entertained (when we’re not watching our afore-mentioned heroes!) and simply making a life for ourselves, we have to make a decision. Do we choose style or substance? Safe or risky? To win or to simply enjoy? Can we not have both? I think we can, if we choose wisely. As one of my favourite authors Seth Godin says, “Safe is risky.” Just ask or rather, watch the showplayers at Wimbledon.