Barely 13 hours after England made their narrow but time-honoured exit from the European football championships, the next phase in the cycle of national sporting agony began when the tennis started at Wimbledon.
The same outcome is confidently expected when Andy Murray is beaten some time in the next fortnight. There is a school of thought that this year, that might come sooner rather than later. But in the meantime, a small quantity of hope springs eternal. The Sun newspaper’s front-page headline, against a background of inconsolable England footballers, was “Anyone for tennis?”
The first-day atmosphere at Wimbledon was subdued, but the reason was not immediately obvious. This is not a particularly footbally crowd so post-traumatic stress is an improbable explanation. The recession? Wimbledon seems immune.
It could be the impending Olympics, the all-purpose explanation for anything that goes wrong in London this year. (It’s like the war: “Don’t you know there’s an Olympics on?”)
Maybe it’s the weather. The air seemed heavy, brooding, as though everyone was just awaiting another downpour, or perhaps a thunderclap from David Nalbandian.
Lightning nearly did strike again. Nalbandian, the one-time Wimbledon runner-up from Argentina, who was disqualified for kicking a line-judge at Queen’s Club last weekend, was the opening attraction on Court One. His malfeasance cost him his chance of being seeded here, and he immediately had to face the No. 8 seed, Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia.
The crowd was too dozy to either boo or cheer him, but Nalbandian was in a state of barely suppressed rage with officialdom. Are they against you, he was asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “They never do mistakes in 15-all. All mistakes are in the deuce, the break points, very important moments.” He had just lost in straight sets, by the way.
Nalbandian, a 30-year-old underachiever still raging against the dying of the light, was not the most famous casualty. That was Venus Williams, five times the champion but now struggling against the nasty autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s Syndrome. She was walloped by the little-known Russian Elena Vesnina, but refused to moan (“My opponent played well”), discuss her health (“It is what it is”) or contemplate surrender. She is desperate to play in the Olympics. Vulnerable, she seems more of a star.
The No.6 men’s seed Tomas Berdych also went out but the big two men in action – the reigning monarch Novak Djokovic and the old king Roger Federer – won easily enough. In the opening days of the tournament it is necessary to look to the outside courts for the best shows.
There was a corking match on Court 3 between John Isner, the 6ft 9in American famous for winning the set of the century – 70-68 – here two years ago. He was up against the Colombian Alejandro Falla. It was a glorious contrast in styles: Isner serves, at up to 138 mph, as though he is dropping blazing projectiles from the castle ramparts on to a besieging army. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much of a Plan B. This match also went to five sets, but he lost the last one 7-5. He is probably still knackered from 2010.
In one sense, the Olympics hung over the place. The tennis takes place here (where else?) and so, in two weeks’ time, the makeover will start to provide a “clean venue” to conform with Olympic rules. This normally means removing extraneous advertising to make way for the Games sponsors, but at Wimbledon the branding is far less intrusive than at the forthcoming extravaganza.
One remaining job is to fix the cash machines so they take nothing but Visa, who are among the Olympic sponsors and are determined to make sure everyone knows it. Now that’s intrusive.