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One of my most enjoyable journalistic assignments was to spend a few days at John Newcombe's tennis ranch at New Braunfels, Texas, along with some of the great Australian players of that golden era of tennis, the 1950s and ‘60s, such as Neale Fraser, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and Newcombe himself. The three times Wimbledon champion was still as bristlingly competitive as when he was the best player in the world.

They pitched up there every year for a Fantasy Week, attended by tennis enthusiasts from all over the US who were happy to pay a hefty sum to spend a week playing and hobnobbing with such legendary characters.

I managed to win a gentle mixed doubles tournament and at the last-night dinner was presented with a trophy by the great Newcombe himself. As he handed it over, he announced, "Well done mate - you're the first Englishman to win a trophy since Fred Perry." It brought the house down, as well it might, Perry being the last Englishman to win Wimbledon, in 1936. 

He still holds that unenviable title. Every summer, we tune in to Wimbledon to see if a British man can emulate Perry and every year we are disappointed. Our players have become a byword for plucky losers, none more so than Tim Henman, who reached the semi-finals four times and never got any further. His parents, the epitome of the stiff upper lip, watched from the stands, never betraying a flicker of emotion while the rest of the country went through agonies on behalf of their son. This year it will be Andy Murray's turn. Somehow Britain, which gave so many sports to the world, has become synonymous with losing at them, which may be why we celebrate our rare triumphs, like the 2003 rugby World Cup and our gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, with such exaggerated fervour.

These thoughts were prompted by reading a new book, It's Not the Winning that Counts: The most inspiring moments of sporting chivalry, (Little, Brown) by Max Davidson (who is of course British). His aim, he writes, is to celebrate teams and players who win in "the right, sporting way", for, he adds, "if they cheat in the process, or are graceless in victory, it leaves a residue of dissatisfaction." He hits the nail on the head there: the essence of sportsmanship is knowing how to win as well as how to lose.

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