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Jessica Duchen
Saturday 4th July 2009
Why Brits don't Win Tennis...

The optimism was incredible. Henman Hill transformed into Murray Mound; millions of TV viewers tuning in; all frantically hoping that a Brit might for once win Wimbledon. It didn't happen and now nobody's that surprised. Why should they be? No male Brit has won the thing for about 70 years.

Murray's a great player, but he's a rarity, and Roddick played better. And Brits don't win things. We have a national misunderstanding of the nature of winning, a collective sense that we will upset someone awfully if we do so. "Oh no, I couldn't possibly! It's just not cricket... after you, after you... I am such a gentleman/lady. I am only in it for the joy of taking part, winning doesn't matter!" Then along come the Americans with an attitude that can be roughly summarised as "YEE-HAA! Let's NUKE 'em!!" (Yes, I know I'm generalising wildly and neither attitude is meant to represent Murray or Roddick in person...)

Music isn't so different from tennis. Winning takes work, and it usually involves pushy parents or special schooling. Our most successful musicians have mostly come out of specialist organisations like Chethams (Paul Lewis, Stephen Hough, Peter Donohoe) or the Menuhin School (Nigel Kennedy, Tasmin Little), where kids work extremely hard at their art in a professional manner from an early age. As for Alex Prior, the prodigy of the moment, whether you like or loathe his compositions he is doing things most 16-year-olds simply can't. I look forward, someday, to having a chat with his mum about how it's all come about. She's Russian and would have grown up in a system where different attitudes were de rigeur.

We Brits are good at things like choral singing that involve gentle participation, mild knowhow and a sociable down-the-pub element afterwards. But the individual winning mentality? Forget it. You can't be nice for that. If your talented child wants to be a world-beater and has the necessary drive and application, you have to make it happen by rising at 5am to take him/her wherever necessary to work, work, work. Never let them slack, never let them forget the task in hand. No holidays, minimal school, no other priority...

We don't work hard enough or young enough and often our training is poor. If you have a musical child, there's no network of local primary-age music schools to help them along; you have to be fortunate to stumble over the right outlet. And meanwhile shows like 'Britain's got Talent' encourage people to think that everything - singing, success, showmanship et al - happens as if by magic. It doesn't. It takes years and years of ultradedicated slog.

Many British parents are either too kind to put their kids through that, or they simply don't understand what it takes. My husband was once asked to teach some local kids the violin. "We want them to win music scholarships so we don't have to pay school fees," said the mum, "but we can't guarantee they'll practise every day." He sent them elsewhere.

Until these attitudes change, we're not going to be good enough. We'll remain a bit of a joke to everyone else, a parochial little island on the outskirts of Europe where world-class individual achievement is frowned upon should it dare to exist. And until then, don't bother cheering for Brits at the tennis. They won't win.
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Jessica Duchen
July 5th, 2009
8:07 AM
Thanks, chaps - good points, all of them. Re writers: maybe it's a matter of tradition. We have a powerful literary tradition here in Blighty that stretches back centuries. The same can't be said of composition, which flourished in the 16th century, but spectacularly failed to respond to the presences of JC Bach, Handel, Haydn or Mendelssohn when they came to town. Writing requires a heck of a lot of hard work, but the examples, role-models and widespread encouragement exist: here we can compete internationally on a level playing field. In music - and possibly tennis too - the approach of your teacher/coach and the support you receive from your family make an unutterable difference to your results. Hence countries in which success in the field is highly valued and where a tougher training tradition has arisen naturally achieve the most widespread success - in music, notably Russia, and now China, which absorbed a lot of emigre Russian teachers. Besides, those are performance arts: you have to produce the goods at a given moment, like it or lump it, and you mustn't be culturally discouraged from giving your all during a public display of superior ability. With writing, you normally have the leisure to rework and, hopefully, get it right: adrenalin-management isn't generally an issue. And you don't have to stand up in front of people and be a pesky little show-off (at least not until your local library books you to do a reading, by which time the book is finished).

July 4th, 2009
11:07 AM
It seems to me we have produced, and still are, some outstanding writers. That job involves a fair amount of work, doesn't it?

Christopher Williams
July 4th, 2009
10:07 AM
Dear Jessica, I would simply like to be the first Ami to disagree gently with your comments. First, Murray is a fabulous, hard-working tennis player who does not fit the stereotype you sketch in the slightest. He is, simply, young, and his time WILL come, barring injury or the unexpected intervention of some other hand of fate. Second, Roddick is not the kind of "yee-ha" American stereotype you sketch either, by any stretch. His BBC post-match interview, which was broadcast in the U.S., was extraordinarily gracious, humble, and full of praise for Murray. He took none of the bait offered by the interviewer to answer with triumphalism. The story you present of eager parents wishing rubber-stamped success for their undisciplined "talents" of children is, if anything, much more true in the U.S. than it is in England. If so many American artists do succeed, it is only because of the sheer size of the population and because the opportunities are available to those who are scrappy, wealthy, or merely lucky enough to encounter and exploit them. British artists yield nothing to American on any of the scales that matter. And, indeed, the arts education that is widely available to citizens of the U.K. is the envy of most people involved in the arts in the States. Sadly, as in so many things, the historical, cultural valuation of mercantilism at the expense of the spiritual is something that makes the U.S. and the U.K more similar to each other than we are to many countries in continental Europe.

July 4th, 2009
9:07 AM
I 'm not so sure this thesis will stand up to close scrutiny: there are an awful lot of superbly talented Brits in all walks of life. But it does bring to mind a joke from Milton Jones: Q. What do you have to do to get your GCSE in Cheerleading? A. Just walk into the exam and say "Give me an A."

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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