Success breeds success

2013-07-13 00:00

ANDY Murray is quite good enough to win several more grand slam tournaments, but let it be said that never again will he have such an easy path to and in the final. It is highly unusual for the winner of one of the big four events in tennis not to face any player ranked in the top 10 in the world until the final itself.

Such was the carnage among the players in Murray’s half of the draw that the highest ranked player that Murray came across was the erratic Pole Jerzy Janowicz at number 17. Fernando Verdasco, who nearly beat him in the quarters, is ranked at 35 and gave Murray his toughest match. This, however, was in the quarter-final. His semi-final match was a stop start affair that lasted scarcely more than two hours, even taking the light delay into account. As a contest it consumed a negligible amount of Murray wattage.

In contrast, Novak Djokovic had to get past two top 10 players in Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro. Both of them are tough opponents and his semi-final match against Del Potro was a brutal five- set affair lasting over five hours. By the time Djokovic had beaten Del Potro, he was completely knackered.

This was illustrated by his weary, error-strewn performance in the final where he gave way in straight sets to a man against whom he has a winning record. He simply had not had enough time to recover before the final where he was further hindered by the hottest day by far of the championships. It is to his immense credit that Djokovic’s runner-up speech contained no reference to the difficulties of his route to the final and was full of praise for Murray’s performance. Gracious and charming, he is a worthy world number one despite his loss to Murray.

In contrast again, the newly crowned champion failed to mention his opponent in a self-absorbed post-match interview. He is a great tennis player who is certain to win big again but, like his mother and coach, is a few scenes short of being a class act. A golden era of tennis may be entering its final years as Federer and Nadal begin to depart centre stage.

What is not in its final throes is Great Britain’s period of sporting supremacy. This is something that I have been forecasting for some years ever since I have seen at first hand how well organised British sport is at all levels. Generous funding came initially from the lottery but as in all things, success breeds success and the major sports are now pretty well self-sufficient.

Television and attendance revenues have grown sharply in recent years to the extent that a career in sport is no longer the exceptionally risky option it once was. Even for those who do not make it to the top, post-playing careers in coaching and instruction are available for those prepared to work hard at nurturing young talent.

Throughout the country, opportunities abound for aspiring young athletes whether at school or club. In the public, as opposed to state schools, the facilities for sport are generally breathtaking. Many of the prep schools have grounds that rival those of our best private senior schools. I have been surprised by the enthusiasm with which male and female teachers embrace their sporting responsibilities.

For those not fortunate to attend one of the public schools, clubs have stepped in to fill the gap that once existed in British sport. Throughout the country, club facilities have improved and the clubs have been encouraged by lottery funding to take it upon themselves to provide coaching and competition to all ages.

It all adds up to a situation where Great Britain’s sport is in such rude health that not only is it young but also those from foreign countries are encouraged to make careers out of sport in the United Kingdom. It just shows that bad weather is not an excuse for poor performance on the playing fields.

There is much that they can and should improve. Just like South Africa, there is a tremendous waste of talent in those who want to pursue a higher education. The MCC has made a big effort to encourage cricket with an imaginative funding scheme at half-a-dozen hand-picked universities. Even those recipient universities, however, seem reluctant to find it in themselves to admit sportsmen and -women whose academic performances are not out of the very top drawer.

Consequently, the standard of cricket at the Oxbridge and other universities has reached a low level that is not commensurate with the stream of quality cricketers leaving school. As long as these institutions and prospective employers continue to place such emphasis on academic performance, there is little chance that this newish frontier will be breached any time soon. The same is true, I am sure, of all sports.

Perhaps some progress will be made when employers begin to realise that, excepting a few professions where higher mathematics and quantum physics are a prerequisite for success, academic proficiency is not always a reliable indicator of future performance. It may make recruiting easier, but a few wiser employers are beginning to look past the quality of a degree into the person.

I remain convinced that making space in sport for university students is a major opportunity for South Africa. It surely can do no harm to have some better educated citizens with a broader view of life playing representative sport. The relative newness of professional sport in South Africa means that some of its pitfalls have taken us by surprise.

It also means that we have a chance to redress some of these difficulties before they become entrenched in the culture of South African sport. Failure to do so means that we will fall even further behind a country like Great Britain, where sport is better organised and funded.

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