Britain is the home of noble sporting defeat. Its history is full of heartbreaking near-misses, teams and players who are remembered for fighting bravely and losing, all accepted with a pick-me-up clap and a stiffly uttered, “Unlucky.”
So when Andy Murray became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, beating Novak Djokovic in straight sets Sunday, fans weren’t prepared.
“It was very un-English-not only winning, but when he came under pressure, not buckling and going away and everyone saying, ‘Oh, he tried ever so hard,'” said Lars Smith, who watched the match at a pub in north London. In England, he said, “if you win easily, it’s a bit vulgar. That’s what Americans and Australians do.”
Two of the England national soccer team’s best-remembered World Cup games are its 1990 semifinal defeat against West Germany on penalty kicks and its 1998 second-round loss to Argentina, also on penalties. Henry Cooper was Britain’s most famous boxer of the 1950s and 1960s for once knocking down Muhammad Ali in his prime even though he lost the fight. And the high point of Tim Henman’s career was an epic semifinal defeat to Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon over three days in 2001.
“You get to the stage where you don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Pete Rigby, watching the final in the Marquess of Anglesey pub in central London. “A bit like the World Cup.”
Murray, of course, is British, but not English. He’s a proud Scotsman who counts two of his most famous countrymen among his biggest fans—Sean Connery and former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. That, combined with his sometimes dour public image, meant that it took the English public a while to come around to the 26-year-old from Dunblane.
For one ticket scalper outside the All England Club, it might have been the cause of slow business. “Good luck to the kid,” he said, “but he is Scottish, isn’t he?”
But several fans said they warmed to Murray after a BBC documentary that aired before the tournament showed a softer side of him, stripped of the grave intensity he carries on court. More important, he had also grown into that role of the lovable British loser.
“I love my country, love my queen and I love Andy,” Lex Emery, a 53-year-old singer from Lowestoft, said on Henman Hill, which was renamed Murray Mound for the occasion.
The party from the All England Club spread to pubs all over the city, though it was never on the scale of last year’s Olympics, when the likes of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, and Greg Rutherford had the whole country wrapping itself in the Union Jack.
Still, in a pub in Covent Garden, tense silence was interspersed with raucous applause and more cursing than a Wimbledon steward would probably stand for throughout the final set. And as Murray squandered three match points, the final took on the vibe of a World Cup penalty shootout—just the kind of situation where British fans have learned to watch their favorites fall apart.
“He’s nervous, isn’t he?” Sam Rigby said to her husband, covering her eyes during points. “Bless him.”
But once Djokovic put his final return in the net, the place erupted. “You needed to see it. It’s history,” Pete Rigby said. “My dad hasn’t seen this, let alone me.”
Murray’s victory completed an unusually good weekend for British sports. On Saturday, the British and Irish Lions rugby team hammered Australia to secure its first tour victory since 1997. Then, cyclist Chris Froome pulled on the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. He grew up in Kenya and South Africa, but Britain is happy to claim him.
And Britain’s summer of sporting success is set to continue: England’s cricket team will begin the Ashes series against Australia as the favorite.
That said, England has its priorities. Lifting the Wimbledon hoodoo is big, but it isn’t that big. At least not with soccer season around the corner.
“It doesn’t compare to the World Cup in 1966 obviously, but it’s up there,” said Stephen Gilmour, a bricklayer from Middlesbrough who cheered every point like a goal. “You’ve got the World Cup next year. Now it’s all football, as long as England qualify.”
—Carl Bialik and Jeanne Whalen contributed to this article.
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