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.