How to Play the Game

In sport, it’s not just knowing how to lose that’s important, it’s also knowing how to win

Robert Low

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.

A perfect example of sporting chivalry, Davidson explains, was provided by the German tennis player, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, whom Fred Perry beat in successive Wimbledon finals, in 1935 and 1936. Playing for Germany against the US in the Davis Cup in 1935, von Cramm countermanded the umpire, who had just awarded the Germans the doubles match, by revealing that the ball had touched his racquet before his partner put away the winning smash. The Americans went on to win the match and the tie. After the match, his team-mates accused him of letting his country down. “When I chose tennis as a young man,” the baron replied, “I chose it as a gentleman’s game, and that is the way I’ve always played it.”

Perhaps the most celebrated act of sportsmanship in sport was that of Bobby Jones, the greatest golfer of his age, in the first round of the 1925 US Open. As he was about to hit the ball, he claimed he saw it move, and though no one else did, he insisted on calling a one-shot penalty on himself. If he hadn’t, he would have won the tournament by one shot. Instead, he tied for first place and lost the play-off. When praised for his sportsmanship, he famously and tersely replied, “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

The code that Jones and von Cramm lived and played by can be summarised in two words: noblesse oblige. You must obey the dictates of your conscience and do the right thing. But this isn’t something we’re born with: small children cheat and lie to get what they want and burst into tears when it isn’t forthcoming. They learn the “right” way to behave only through the teaching and example of their parents and society as a whole. Von Cramm and Jones were playing by rules developed by the society in which they lived and which were widely understood and applied by most people, whatever their circumstances. 

Modern sportspeople seem to live by a different set of rules, defined by the American Football coach Vince Lombardi in the words, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” Winning is everything (or as Lombardi also said, “it’s the only thing”), and you can see the triumph of that viewpoint every time you see a rugby player, tennis player, footballer or golfer wave his (or her) clenched fist in the air in a gesture of self-congratulation whenever they win a point, score a goal or sink a long putt. I think it was the American tennis player Jimmy Connors who first popularised this horrible habit, which has since mutated throughout the sporting world like some deadly virus.

I remember somebody else I met at Newcombe’s Texas ranch: Ken Rosewall, another of those great Australians, an artist of the tennis court affectionately nicknamed “Muscles” because of his slight, almost fragile physique. He won eight major titles but is probably best known for the one major singles title he never won, despite reaching the final four times: Wimbledon. The reason is that he spent his peak years as a professional and was therefore barred from the world’s major tournaments, all still then confined to amateurs. When the open era began in 1968, he was able to compete at Wimbledon again after an absence of a dozen years. Although past his best, he was still good enough to reach two more finals, losing first to Newcombe, and second in 1974, when he was 39 years old, to none other than the 21-year-old Connors, who slaughtered the veteran in three brief sets. Connors won Wimbledon twice but never endeared himself to tennis fans like Rosewall did. A sportsman to his fingertips, Rosewall never queried a line call or pumped his fist in self-congratulation. Perhaps in another life he’ll play Gottfried von Cramm in the Wimbledon final. There won’t be a loser.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"