For 13 days every Wimbledon for the last three years, Andy Murray was a Brit. On day 14, he would cease being a Brit, and become a Scot. All that changed last week.
Finally, in defeat, the collective consciousness of Great Britain was forced to embrace Murray the vanquished at Centre Court last Sunday. Moments after being outclassed and overwhelmed by Roger Federer, the Swiss virtuoso, Murray broke down on the hallowed lawns. He didn't cry on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent, like Jana Novotna had done in 1993 when she choked against Steffii Graf, the great German. Instead, at the presentation ceremony, Murray shed tears of unfulfilled ambition, of shattered dreams, of painful defeat.
There is something about watching an adult crying in full public view, particularly in defeat, that invariably melts stone. As Murray struggled to embrace any sense of control, a packed house encouraged and egged him on, clearly showing him that while he might have lost the final, he had irrevocably won their hearts; Federer's tears of joy were washed away in the flood of emotion that Murray transferred to the centre court audience.
For 76 years now, Great Britain have yearned for a men's singles champion at Wimbledon. Since Fred Perry won the last of his three titles in 1936, the fans have watched Bjorn Borg wear the crown five times on the trot, Pete Sampras scale unprecedented heights with seven titles in the Open era, Jimmy Connors and Rafael Nadal spill guts and sweat and John McEnroe rave, rant and argue on his way to grasscourt magic, just as they have seen Federer gently, almost apologetically, bleed opponents dry with his majestic, fluid, languid grace.
They haven't, though, seen a Briton hold aloft the men's singles trophy on the second Sunday. For a long time, Tim Henman promised without delivering. Year after year, Henman carried the weight of expectations of a nation and made the second week, only to court disappointing exits. Henman Hill became Murray Mound as the young Scot threatened to set the record straight, but each year, the hunt for a British champion has proved elusive, successive campaigns ending in heartbreak.
There was a time when it was considered unmanly to cry in public. Sportsmen, obviously, weren't part of the group that thought along those lines - numerous footballers have wept openly, especially after missing decisive spot-kicks in penalty shootouts. Athletes and hockey players, gymnasts and even the tough boys, the weightlifters and the wrestlers, have allowed emotion to get the better of them. That it took the crippling blow of defeat to drive them to such state touched a chord in the audience, because while the whole world likes a winner, it loves a gallant, passionate, valiant loser even more.
The most dramatic picture of the 1996 Cricket World Cup wasn't Arjuna Ranatunga receiving the trophy from Benazir Bhutto on a historic March night in Lahore, but Vinod Kambli breaking down at the Eden Gardens. With India on the brink of semifinal elimination against Sri Lanka, the Kolkata crowd showcased its rage, ire, disappointment and anguish, forcing Clive Lloyd, the match referee, to abandon the match and award it to Sri Lanka. Kambli and Anil Kumble were the Indian batsmen out in the middle, trying to salvage a cause that was nothing if not lost. Kambli wept unashamedly but strangely, he failed to move the irate Eden crowd. Perhaps then, it was passe for a man to cry in public in India.
The tears flowed generously in April 2011. The protagonists were the same - India and Sri Lanka - while the stage was even bigger, the final of the World Cup. India staged a wonderful recovery act to complete a dream run in front of their adoring fans at the Wankhede Stadium, the naked display of emotion and pride that night a unifying force that lifted the mood of the nation. Strangely, even as spectators shed tears of joy and relief, few from the Indian team actually did so in the open. Yuvraj Singh was an exception, there was an odd tear or two that Sachin Tendulkar wiped away surreptitiously, but most of the emotional release had been confined to the changing room. Perhaps even now, it is passe for a man to cry in public in India. Even if they are tears of delight.
Which brings us back to Murray. It was interesting to hear some experts suggest that no individual sportsperson has had to play under as much pressure as Murray does each Wimbledon. Haven't they heard of Tendulkar? Do they not know how much rides on his broad, battle-worn shoulders even today, after 22 and a half years of soldiering on in international cricket? Aren't they aware that, at 1.3 billion and counting, India is the second-most populous nation in the world, and that a significant number of them bank on Tendulkar to provide some succour, if only temporarily?
Pressure - it's a funny word that. Before every India-Pakistan contest, the players are asked if there is 'any more pressure' because of the opposition. Is there any such thing as 'any more pressure'? Either there's pressure, or there is no pressure. 'Any more pressure'? I think not.
Murray cried not so much because he had let the fans down as he had let himself down, let a much cherished title slip away from his grasp after having begun the contest strongly. Just as Tendulkar sobbed, uncontrollably, we are told, in the dressing room after India lost to Pakistan in Chennai in 1999 despite his heroic 136. It wasn't merely because he had dashed the expectations and the hopes of a nation, but also because he had let his mates down, that he had sold himself short. Sport is all about winning and losing, yes, but without the attendant emotions - ranging from the euphoric to the devastated - it wouldn't be even half the spectacle.