Britannia Rules in July
BOSTON — We head into July, the cruelest month for American sports pride.
That's because it's when the Wimbledon tennis championships in London reach a heart-stopping crescendo, concluding July 7 after a fortnight, followed nine days later by the beginning of the scintillating British Open golf championships, this year in Southport.
No problem, you say. Wrong, big problem.
It's because this is the time of year when we Americans must grumpily admit that Wimbledon, not the US Open, is the premier tennis tournament in the world each year and that the British Open, not the US Open nor the Masters, is No. 1 among the golf competitions.
This shouldn't be. After all, the US has a population of more than 267 million while England and Scotland combined (the British Open rotates among courses in the two countries) check in with a mere 54 million. We have San Francisco and they have double-decker buses and bagpipes. We have purple mountain majesties and they drive on the wrong side of the road. We've got it all over them.
Except they have the best tennis and best golf tournaments in the world.
Go figure. Britain, where the sun last shone when Churchill was but a wisp of a lad, has underachieved in tennis for decades. That's why the British still rhapsodize over Fred Perry who played, yes, brilliantly, but in the 1930s. It's a country that basically would be lost in the tall weeds in golf achievement, were it not for the exploits of one Nick Faldo.
Nobody has officially anointed these two tournaments as the world winners. But the designation is as certain as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, which even the food-challenged British can't botch in the preparation. All we can do is take minor solace in the fact that the US Open at least puts the French Open in the shade.
Even more galling, it was Americans who made the events what they are. Without us, both are chopped liver. The British Open was but a blip on the golf scene for eons everywhere but Britain. It wasn't until Arnold Palmer started showing up in 1960 to play that the tournament developed strut and clout. Wimbledon found itself on the international front pages thanks largely to the likes of Bill Tilden, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert - Americans all. Without this group, Wimbledon is about Ginny Wade.
It's not fair. After wars, we help rebuild nations that got put asunder and then they either turn on us politically or worst of all, have a golf and tennis tournament better than anything we can muster. Ingrates.
Yet, in the off chance any of this smacks of whining jingoism, it is sadly true there is something magnificent about both events. Author John Barrett writes of Wimbledon: "It is a symbol of all that is best about sport, royal patronage, and social occasion that the British do so well, a subtle blend that the rest of the world finds irresistible."
It's the age, the tradition, the patina. The fact that neither event - the British Open started in 1860, Wimbledon in 1877 - changes much is another of the charms.
Whereas a place like the Masters is mostly stuffy, the British Open comes off as properly proud, solid like oak, and gorgeous like cherry, anchored in concrete. The windy seaside courses are scruffy and wild versus the pristine and manicured here. Greens are indescribably slow. The 20 grass courts of Wimbledon routinely are in shambles at tournament end, because of too much rain and too much play. What's wrong with that? Errant bounces are part of the allure.
All of these quirks in the world's quirkiest land provide different and worthy challenges for the world's best athletes.
The stature of the events accrues mainly because the British cherish both sports and hold both close to their breasts with passion. Not so in America. We like golf and tennis fine and sometimes get worked up over them but neither sears itself in our hearts as they do the British. We applaud. They genuflect.
In the spirit of good sportsmanship, we Americans need to keep stiff upper lips and clap politely for the British and what they created at Wimbledon and the British Open. Then we can all go out for scones and we will regale them with stories about the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA championship, the NHL championship, the Final Four, the World Cup. OK, OK, five of six isn't bad.
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org