July 2003. The summer recess, the close season, whatever you want to call it. An opportunity to reflect and contemplate. Time to draw breathe and consider what has passed before us over the last nine, ten or is it eleven sporting months? The new season is almost upon us again and expectations and hopes are beginning to build. But what can we learn from the season that was?
A cursory look at the final statistics reveals mostly familiar names, some back where they feel they rightly belong, such as Manchester United and Rangers, and others such as Wolves, who felt that they would never get back to where they once belonged. It is at times like these that you sit and wonder what is it that makes a champion?
Clearly if we knew it would be bottled and sold around the world. It is not, but there are certain fundamentals that are borne out time and again. Experience and desire come in equal quantities for Manchester United and the England rugby team, a heady cocktail indeed, but when mixed with that intangible sense of belief they can become all conquering.
An inner strength to succeed and more importantly, a belief that they could do it raised Manchester United to new levels in the English game. Contrast this with their failed European campaign, where one sensed that they never really had the belief to topple Real Madrid.
The English rugby team continue to demonstrate their individual and collective belief on a global scale, once again illuminated by the ice man Jonny Wilkinson and a bunch of forwards confident in their individual roles. They know what they are doing and they expect to win and they do. The same could be said for the all conquering Wasps team at the end of the domestic season. Forget that Gloucester won the battle for the league, there were no prizes for that. Wasps came into the grand finale on the back of a successful European campaign and had only lost one meaningful match all year. For them, experience and desire were very much to the fore – remember this was broadly the same group of players who had won trophies at Twickenham in 1999 and 2000. For Gloucester, the party was over long before the finale, two weeks spent kicking their heels waiting for the day and key players already signed up for more profitable futures elsewhere. Desire? – what desire?
Wolves likewise achieved on the big stage against the season’s perennial ‘nearly men’, Sheffield United. Wolves had been there before and their experience, desire and hunger saw them through. It was a game too far for Sheffield, in much the same way as it had been for Gloucester.
There are certain champions in certain events where losing is unimaginable. Arsenal simply could not afford to lose to Southampton in the FA Cup Final. Arsenal’s triumph was more of a relief than a celebration. For Southampton, their achievement was making it to the final. One sensed that they didn’t really believe that they could win the final and ultimately it didn’t really matter that they didn’t. There was no pain in defeat. Their loss did not hurt as their expectations had already been surpassed.
Individual sports portray similar emotions and feelings. It could be argued that it is even more marked as it is only one mind and one body rather than the collective wills and souls of a whole team. Martin Verkerk’s defeat by Juan Carlos Ferrero in the French Open tennis final bore a marked resemblance to the Southampton scenario. Martin (who?) had made it through to a major final, as had the Argentinian David Nalbandian at last year’s Wimbledon – both tremendous achievements in their own right, but again you sensed that the ultimate prize, victory on the final day, eluded them because their belief deserted them, when playing against the very best. Their challenges ultimately subsided to a whimper.
Belief is everything. To some inner belief and self confidence can lead to exceptional levels of performance. Consider the cases of Roger Federer and Michael Vaughan. Federer, as an ex Wimbledon Junior Champion, is clearly a man of undoubted natural talent. However, he has often struggled in the early rounds at Wimbledon, where the pressure of overcoming supposedly inferior opponents causes him to play ‘tense’. However, once the early hurdles have been overcome, the shackles are visibly removed as he relaxes into his natural game. He is then able to demonstrate his undoubted ability and class. His demolition of Roddick and then Philopoussis displayed a talent and belief in his own ability that most can only dream of.
Similarly Michael Vaughan. To some, a journeyman county cricketer, who was introduced to the international arena at a relatively late age. His approach to batting was one of caution, his natural ability and flair rarely finding it’s way to the surface. And then the transformation, as he suddenly realised that he had the ability to succeed and the ability to dominate. His positive approach to batting reflects the giant leaps in his own self belief so that he is now one of the best batsmen in the world.
Tennis is particularly fascinating and at the top level is very much played in the mind. Belief and desire are everything. Consider recent events in the women’s game. Justine Henin-Hardenne, after years of trying, finally deposed Serena Williams in a grand slam event at the French Open. The pendulum was beginning to swing. Henin believed in her own ability to overcome the champion and Serena, always under intense pressure as ‘the champion’ to keep winning, finally succumbed. Perhaps Serena’s desire had waned and it proved costly. That loss clearly fired her desire and victory at Wimbledon saw the status quo return – hell hath no fury like a champion scorned!
Desire is often the achilles heel of great champions. Agassi and Sampras, particularly, seem to need the occasion to draw the very best out of them and who can forget Sampras’ unbelievable performance to defeat Agassi in last year’s US Open, when his ability, desire and belief had all been questioned leading up to the event.
It was a cricketing moment however, that will perhaps last longest in my memory. Ironically it was not a match winning moment or performance, but it showed the mark of a true champion. It was day two of the final test match in Australia and Steve Waugh was at the crease, in arguably his last test match against the Poms in his own back yard at the Sydney Cricket Ground. As usual he serenely made his way to a fifty and the well oiled sun-baked capacity crowd were willing him to a century. In truth it was never really on. Centuries in test match cricket are hard to come by and when you are close to achieving one, they are not to be thrown away. The sensible approach would have been to have pushed the ball around, taken no risks and returned the following morning to finish the job off. But not Steve Waugh, carpe diem, and in a display of controlled attacking batting and a total confidence in his own ability, he stroked the ball to all parts, just as he wanted to. When he smashed the penultimate ball for four to reach his century the crowd rose to acknowledge a wonderful achievement. It was a rich moment, one of a champion, displaying all the virtues of experience, desire and total belief.