As Great Britain celebrated their first Davis Cup title since 1936 following victory over Belgium in Ghent, it was no surprise that Britain’s talismanic leader Andy Murray won the elusive point which secured the title for Leon Smith’s team.
Murray himself is part of an elite group of successful British athletes who participate in sports which for the most part are solely individual. Cyclists Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, athletes Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah, and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton have all – like Murray – reached the pinnacle of their sport mostly by themselves. Yet a list of sportsmen and women that include Olympic and World Champions, Tour de France winners and a multiple Grand Slam champion, seem to remain in the shadows behind a group of sporting teams more noted for their failures than triumphs. Football, rugby and cricket remain arguably the three most popular sports in Britain. This is seen in the British media with many column inches devoted to these sports in comparison to sports such as athletics, cycling and tennis. Over the last 18 months the respective English teams of cricket, football and rugby have all failed miserably at World Cups, with all three events seeing England exit at the first stage of the tournament. This is in deep contrast to the achievements of the likes of Farah, Froome and Hamilton, who have all won titles in that same period of time. Yet despite the odd-double page spread in newspapers the day after these triumphs, these achievements are often quickly overlooked, while even in failure the achievements of teams such as the English Rugby Union side are constantly debated and talked about.
The main reason for this comes down to participation. At a young age most children are encouraged to participate in sport. The most popular sports for participation in the UK remain the team sports of football, rugby and cricket. Sports such as cycling, athletics and tennis are often seen as secondary sports and children often receive less encouragement to participate. As someone who played both football and tennis at a young age, I experienced first-hand the differences between team and individual sports. Winning as part of a team is a special feeling that cannot be replicated and playing in team sports as a youngster is an important experience in developing social skills as well as working together. In football, teammates are there to rectify each others’ mistakes and must all work together to achieve success. In contrast, tennis is a sport where often you are playing one person and if you make a mistake, no-one is there to bail you out. In team sports, average players can be carried along by teammates. In individual sports, only the very best achieve success.
Playing tennis at a young age also helped me as a footballer. In football, emotions often run high amongst players, but quite often you see emotions get the better of players resulting in a man getting sent-off or making a mistake that costs their side a goal. In tennis, discipline is crucial. The best players in the world such as Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer know that to win in tennis you must keep your emotions in check. In professional tennis, often when a player starts to let their emotions get the better of them, they lose. The self-discipline that I learnt from playing tennis at a young age has benefitted me on the football pitch, where as a defender it is vital that I maintain my discipline. The skills you learn in individual sport can be just as beneficial as the ones learnt as part of a team. Skills such as dedication and commitment are most important in sports such as athletics and cycling if you seek to become a champion.
As a British sports fan, I have been fortunate enough to grow up during a golden-age of British sporting success. Tennis star Andy Murray is currently ranked No.2 in the world and has competed at the top level for many years, whilst also winning two grand slam titles in the most competitive era of tennis where he competes alongside arguably the three best players to have ever played the game. Lewis Hamilton has won back-to-back World Drivers’ Championship titles to take him alongside the great Ayrton Senna on three world titles, and at the age of 30 there is still every chance of adding a few more. At the World Athletics Championships in Beijing, Greg Rutherford won gold in the long-jump to add to his European, Commonwealth and Olympic titles, Jessica Ennis-Hill won Heptathlon gold – just over a year after giving birth to her son – to add to her Olympic gold, while fellow Brit Mo Farah dispelled rumours about failed drugs tests to record victories in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres, and in the process became the first man to record the ‘triple-double’ following his identical triumphs in the 2012 Olympics and 2013 World Championships. Before 2012, the Tour de France had never been one by a Brit, but the success of Wiggins (2012) and Froome (2013 & 2015) has seen the Brits dominate in recent years. Like Ennis-Hill and Farah, Wiggins and Froome have succeeded at a time where it seems every champion is unfairly associated with allegations of drug-taking, and all four athletes have shown remarkable levels of self-control – none more so than Froome in 2015. Each of these individuals have had this success due to the dedication, discipline and commitment they have shown to their sports, characteristics that can often been found wanting in young professionals in football particularly.
Despite all this success, the sports pages of newspapers continue to be dominated by footballers – some of which have achieved very little – while the British athletes who have reached the very top of their respective sports seem to be cast aside, as if there continued success is boring and predictable. The 2012 Olympics is a sporting event that I will never forget, and the achievements of Ennis-Hill, Rutherford and Farah on ‘Super Saturday’ made me immensely proud to be British and have hopefully inspired the next generation to follow in their footsteps. I’d like to think that the legacy these sportsmen and women leave will be seen in increasing numbers of youngsters refusing to follow the herd and choosing to participate in these individual sports, as it is about time Britain appreciated the real sporting heroes of this generation.