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Ed Smith

Reading the Game

For some sportsmen, it’s enough to climb the mountain once. And maybe they’re right

Ed Smith | July/August 2015

Ten years ago, Andrew Flintoff was tasting the ultimate high for an English cricketer: wrestling the Ashes back from Australia. He was a buccaneering batsman, a formidable bowler, a good guy to have on your side, and a more complex character than he seemed. The other day he was telling me about something that bugged him in the dressing room. “It used to annoy me when players would have a go at someone for being content,” he said. “They’d say, ‘He’s comfortable!’, as a term of ridicule. Well, I wish I’d been comfortable! Always wanting perfection is exhausting. I know because that was me.”

What is the ultimate aim of a sportsman, or any dedicated professional? We like to feel that happiness and achievement go together. In fact, far from being interchangeable, they often come into conflict. The parental plea – “give me happy and successful children” – may be asking too much. What if it’s one or the other?

That question casts a particular type of sporting career in a different light – the player who tastes ultimate success but does not become addicted to it; who thinks a normal life is the right foil to the pressures of the job; who might, just might, be able to say, “I did what I wanted to do, now I can move on.”

The Majorcan tennis player Carlos Moya won the French Open in 1998 at the age of 21. World Number One – tick; grand-slam winner – tick. But as soon as he reached the summit, there was gradual decline. Moya later reflected that one of his countrymen, a boy he’d tutored, would never be so easily satisfied. His name? Rafael Nadal.

Yet Nadal’s career, if you think about it, is more admirable than enviable. His hounded intensity, the relentless sense of inferiority (rightly or wrongly, Nadal is convinced that Federer and Djokovic are more talented than he is), his pursuit of victory as a form of absolution, the hunting-down of lost causes: would you really want to live such a life? At times, when I was a professional sportsman, I tried to persuade myself that I did. From the perspective of retirement, however, I can see that my personality wasn’t like that. I wanted to enjoy it too.

No one would call Andy Murray a frivolous hedonist. But after the British tennis star’s annus mirabilis of 2012-13, Murray struggled to discover new sources of inspiration. His back injury also played a part. When he won Olympic gold and then the us Open in 2012 (breaking the 76-year British grand-slam duck), only one prime target still eluded him: Wimbledon. His whole life had been defined by that one word. Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon. Would he, could he? It wasn’t just a suburb in south-west London, it was the soundtrack of his life.

Then he had done it, just like that, beating Djokovic in straight sets. It was over. The wound was healed. Only one problem remained: what next? And, against all logic, he missed it, the emptiness and the hunger, the lonely self-doubt and brutal self-discipline. While Murray slid down the rankings and the blame game began – blame the old coach, the new coach, the departed assistant trainer – part of me was cheering. Murray, even Murray, was having a perfectly natural reaction to achieving his life’s ambition. This year, he has bounced back, and it will be fascinating to see if his improved clay-court form shows up on grass too.

Darren Clarke, the Northern Irish golfer, seems a quite different character. “I’m a normal bloke, aren’t I?” Clarke said after winning the Open Championship in 2011. “I like to go to the pub and have a pint, jump on easyJet, fly home, buy everybody a drink.” He hasn’t won a major since, and his average finishing position has drifted from around 40-50 to more like 60-70.

Murray is a fitness fanatic who runs on water and sushi; Clarke (pictured) has more yeoman tastes. But those are surface issues next to the experience of fulfilling your lifelong quest. It can’t just be shrugged off, wished away or written out of the story.

Why should we blame sportsmen for responding naturally to their great successes? Not that they can help it, anyway. This is a matter of temperament, not rational choice. Far deeper forces are at play than volition. In the final third of my cricket career, between being dropped by England and the fresh challenge of captaining Middlesex, some coaches suggested I’d lost some of the hunger that had always motivated me.

I kicked and bridled, ridiculing the theory. But they were right and I was wrong. I was a better player, in terms of calmness, technique and awareness – yet slightly less productive. Those two facts point to one unavoidable conclusion. I’d lost something more important than skill or even concentration: need. I was happier and cricket occupied a smaller role in my life. I longed to square that circle, but, ultimately, I couldn’t. The logic is uncomfortable, especially as I have always been opposed to using joylessness as a competitive fuel.

In retrospect, given the choice between growing up and moving on, or having a few extra points on my batting average, I’d still say that life wins over sport. For me, that is – not necessarily for anyone else. If anything, it sharpens my admiration for the athletes (Steve Waugh, Sachin Tendulkar, Martina Navratilova, Steve Redgrave) and coaches (Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho) whose well of ambition never runs dry, who can turn achievement back into aspiration.

But it’s good that the ecosystem of professionalism has not yet made the Clarkes and Moyas extinct. We take up sport in pursuit of fun, exercise, competition and diversion. At the top, it becomes many other things as well. But there must always be room for humanity, in victory as well as in defeat.

Wimbledon 2015 June 29th to July 12th

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