The Quest for the Best

January 25, 2017

Anyone catch much of Wimbledon? It might just be nostalgia talking, but it doesn’t seem to be quite as big of a deal as when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s. I think that the excitement it used to provoke in me and my brother back then probably had a lot to do with it coinciding with the start of the school holidays, but I can’t escape the feeling that it has lost some of its comforting lustre.

If that is the case, it is despite the fact that we have been living through men’s tennis’s golden era for the past decade or so, when Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have been pushing the sport to new levels. But could the presence of these greats year after year actually have something to do with any possible decline in interest in the game as a whole (our annual fortnight obsession with Andy Murray notwithstanding)?

If we are honest, any match which does not involve one of these four players struggles to hold the attention, as we know that it has next to no chance of producing the tournament’s eventual winner.

It is difficult to emotionally invest in a player who you know is likely to be knocked out in straight sets as soon as they meet one of the quartet.

Stan Wawrinka was involved in an epic at WimbledonAn exception to this trend this year was the quarter final between Gasquet and Wawrinka (pictured right).

The match was played with such flair, elegance and skill, and was so closely fought, that it was easy to become completely caught up in the contest for its own sake, with no thought of what would happen afterwards.

Gasquet eventually won, and for a moment it was like being back in the days of Edberg and Becker, when no one man was truly dominant, the players looked like guys off the street who just happened to be very handy with a tennis racket and an Aussie bloke with a shit headband could appear from nowhere to win the title.

Predictably enough, Gasquet got walloped by big microphone heed Djoko in the semis and normal service was resumed. Once again, you were struck by the large shadow that these current legends of the game cast over the sport, to the point that there is very little interest in lesser-ranked players.

For instance, in the match report in the Guardian Gasquet’s whole career was described as,

“A story of disappointment and unfulfilled potential, of squandered leads and frittered match points and an object lesson in how natural talent on its own is not enough at the highest level,” and furthermore, that “there have been times when he has had the backbone of a soaking wet lettuce.”

Steady on old son! In what other area of working life would you face such criticism after having just proved that, at that moment, you are the world’s third or fourth best in your chosen sphere?

The truth is, Gasquet was actually ranked 20th going into the match, but who wouldn’t give their right nut to be even the world’s 20th best at doing their job?

Hypothetically, who is the 20th best rugby player in the world? Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Israel Folau or Wesley Fofana. I wouldn’t mind just a couple of ounces of their talent. 

What reactions like this serve to highlight is that nowadays, in the strange little universe of sport, when coverage and opinion is driven by hype and hyperbole, montage and hagiography, if you are not at the very top you are essentially nowhere.

Rugby’s fans and the various media that cover it are as guilty of this as anyone. They are quick to criticise or dismiss any player or team which does not match up to the standards set by the world’s very best. It’s tough goddamnit!

If you’re a jobbing architect, no one thinks any less of you because you’re not Frank Gehry; if you’re a happy-go-lucky binman nobody ranks you or gives you stick for not being one of the top five binmen of all time. But more than this, there is often that same nagging feeling, as in tennis, that the very pinnacle of the sport is all that really matters.

A good proportion of television and newspaper coverage of professional rugby matches in the UK is devoted to discussing which player is going to be picked for their national team, which international player isn’t performing well, how well such and such did on the last Lions tour etc, etc…and it often seems that excellent club players have an invisibility cloak on, so loath are journalists or commentators to mention them.

That is until they get a few Tests to their name of course, when suddenly their every movement will be analysed and applauded…or slated.

The fact is, we like absolutes in sport: we like to decide (or to be told) that these guys are the best...and these guys are crap, or at least are only there to make up the numbers. Having these categories helps us to make sense of it all, especially in a game like rugby where there are thirty fairly homogeneous big blokes hooning round the pitch, and the simplification aids our enjoyment.

A comforting little list of three or four players from each team who are “the best” makes it easier to get our head round.

Amateur Rugby Is a Little More Relaxed with ExpectationsPerhaps this is where amateur rugby has an advantage over its high profile cousin. The game is a little more relaxed. 

The last thing that grassroots suffers from is over-exposure, and this allows you to pitch up to watch a game with no preconceptions and, similar to that Wawrinka v Gasquet quarter, enjoy it for what it is. All that matters is what happens on that particular day, and which players put their hand up.  Of course, if you are involved with a club regularly you will have an idea of who your own stand out players are and who can be relied upon to change a game, but even that still leaves the excitement of the uncertainty of what to expect from your opposition week on week.

I suppose the relative obscurity of grassroots rugby, or any grassroots sport, offers relief from that slightly hysterical quest to find the best in the country, the world, or, as is the case in tennis at the moment, the best ever. It’s sport for sport’s sake.

Anyway, I’m off to look out my Dunlop Green Flash and hit the courts. I need to brush up on my Boris Becker diving volley.

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