Home fans inspiring heroes to new heights

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:07pm

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In 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, a notable absentee in tennis was American John McEnroe who, 24 years later at Wimbledon, admitted that it was one of the biggest mistakes of his career. 'I didn't play because I thought it [tennis at the Olympics] was a joke,' McEnroe said on BBC. Age certainly has mellowed the former bad boy of world tennis because just before the gold medal match between Andy Murray and Roger Federer, McEnroe called for the Olympic title to be regarded as a fifth grand slam.

That might not go down well with tennis authorities, but Murray's victory was certainly greeted by the Scot, or in the context of the Olympics, the Briton, as if he had won his first slam. He was full of smiles as he described his triumph as 'the biggest win in my career'.

The bravehearts in the crowd, and there were plenty of them with faces painted with the St Andrews flag, led the roar of noise that longtime Wimbledon fans said was unprecedented. 'I have never seen anything like this, this is just amazing,' said Bill from Richmond who has been coming to this Mecca of tennis for the past 22 years. Bill was in the crowd exactly four weeks earlier when Murray broke down in tears after Federer had thwarted him in the Wimbledon final. That was Murray's fourth appearance in a grand slam final and he had lost all of them, three times to the Swiss world No 1.

The long journey has finally ended for Murray. It has taken Curiosity nine months to travel to Mars where from today it will start assessing whether the red planet has conditions suitable for supporting life. Murray's voyage of discovery has taken longer. He seemed more relaxed and self-assured. The wall of noise from the crowd seemed to lift him to another level. Federer, who turns 31 tomorrow, looked his age.

The word 'unbelievable' has been as common as the red double-decker buses on the streets of London and is widely used by athletes to describe the crowd support. Every British athlete interviewed after his or her medal success, has shaken their head in disbelief at the backing from the public.

Murray was no different. He said he had been at the Olympic Stadium the previous night to watch the athletics and had been inspired by Britain's 10,000-metre gold medallist Mo Farah and the crowd. 'In training, I do reps of 400 metres. When I'm fresh, my fastest time has been 57 seconds. And here I saw Mo Farah run 9,600 metres and then finish off his final 400 metres in a time of 53 seconds. It was amazing, and the noise from the crowd was unbelievable,' Murray said.

Well, he got a taste of that noise himself. It was unbelievable. This wasn't the usual Wimbledon crowd. Four weeks earlier, when Federer won his seventh Wimbledon crown and his 17th grand slam title overall, the crowd politely cheered him on, too. On Sunday, maybe 14,000 of the 15,000-strong crowd were in Murray's corner.

This was more rowdy Davis Cup final than prim and proper Wimbledon. Glorious colour - Federer in red and Murray in designer blue - rather than prudish white. Murray suddenly seemed to be in his element as he rode roughshod over an opponent who has stood in his path so many times in the past.

McEnroe, mischievous as usual, suggested that perhaps Murray's different persona was down to him playing in the mixed doubles, too. 'Maybe he should play more mixed doubles in the future,' McEnroe smiled. It wouldn't be a bad thing if it did really help the Scot approach the competition in a more relaxed mood.

Tennis is a rich sport, in that it is played by millionaire athletes, a point which McEnroe was quick to bring up. 'We [tennis] don't realise how lucky we are,' said McEnroe, referring among other things to the rich purses at tournaments and the abundance of sponsors the sport has. He was trying to come to terms with the pure adulation other sports have towards the Olympics, sports like gymnastics for instance where the Games are the pinnacle.

The level of commitment and 'respect' other athletes in other sports have towards the Olympics was a matter of awe for McEnroe and although tennis players have started to take the Olympics more seriously - since Agassi won gold in 1996 - McEnroe hinted that the International Tennis Federation could still do more. While tennis has done more than other sport to give the Olympics credibility, awarding ranking points to athletes, it still has a long way to go. For winning the Olympic gold, Murray will receive 750 points, far short of the 1,000 awarded for winning a Masters event or the 2,000 for a grand slam.

No wonder McEnroe felt enough respect wasn't being shown to the Olympics. Like any other new convert, he is zealous. But the main reason why tennis, and indeed every other sport here, has been made to look good is due to the crowds.

The only other Olympics which can come close to these Games in terms of the atmosphere inside stadiums was Sydney 2000. Beijing four years ago wasn't even close. I remember watching the equestrian events in Hong Kong and thinking how antiseptic it was. Greenwich Park was a blast as the crowd went bonkers. And the best thing about British crowds is that they also support the underdog, even though Federer didn't get much of a helping hand. And who can blame them, for they wanted their boy to win.