Hazel McHaffie

Now you see me … now you don’t

Well, I bet you never expected to see a post about sport on my blog, did you? Me neither. But here I am about to dip a toe into this rather alien world.

Marcus Willis

Click on the picture for the winning moment

Actually, to be fair, Wimbledon does hold some appeal every year; tennis being one of the few games I have any interest in. And here it is in full swing once more.

You’ve probably all heard that this week’s sensation was Britain’s Marcus Willis ranked 772 in the world, who beat Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis (ranked 54th) in straight sets in the first round on Monday with some spectacular play. Well, it so happens that I’ve known Marcus’ family all my life; his great-grandfather was one of the loveliest men I ever met and my childhood hero. So, of course, I’ve been absolutely thrilled by the Willis-sensation and all the coverage he’s received.

His own story reads like a fairytale – complete with the beautiful princess who believes in him and rescues him from himself! But what struck me most is how unequal the effort and the recognition are. This young man has been struggling below the radar for years and years, pursuing his dream, earning peanuts, unknown, unsung. He’s on the verge of throwing in the towel … he’s persuaded to give it one more shot. A series of improbable chances propels him into the first round of Wimbledon. He excels. And lo and behold, here he is, suddenly shooting out of obscurity into the blinding flash of publicity; his name, his face, his story, everywhere! Front page headlines. And what’s more, achieving something that will go down in tennis history. Fantastic. A mere two days later he’s on Centre Court playing against no less a person than Roger Federer, ranked third in the world and winner of 17 grand slams, before a crowd of 15,000 spectators, and I am watching the cameras home in on his family in the players’ box. Not surprisingly he was beaten this time. We all felt his disappointment, but he can hold his head high. And no one can take away that phenomenal experience.

I could also see certain parallels with writing – although the literary stage tends to be much less high profile than the sporting one. A whole lot of solitary slog, unseen and unsung. Massive self-discipline. Plenty of self-doubt. Lots of criticism. Constant pressure to do better. Uncertain rewards. Occasional appearances performing to others. And for a tiny elite, accolades.

As the Editor of The Author says in the latest edition: ‘…we endure long periods of solitude punctuated by episodes of startling exposure. Like shy children obliged to sing in assembly, we are thrust forward for sudden public judgement – and it is not just our professional personalities that are up there on the podium but our innermost intellectual and emotional selves. Our everyday creative existence, meanwhile, is dependent on piercing self-criticism and inflated self-belief – not a stable combination … Success can seem arbitrary. Rewards are rarely anticipated. Our control of our professional futures, by and large, is scanty.’

How true. I’ve come out of ‘isolation’ recently to do public events about Inside of Me. After all those months behind closed doors, researching, thinking, creating, plotting, writing, doubting, editing, refining, suddenly it’s time to blink in the headlights. Sign books. Hold an audience. Be challenged to explain, reveal, unravel – there’s no hiding when you’re the only person in the firing line. And suddenly all that careful preparation makes sense.

Sadly justice is not always served in this life. There are countless sportspeople and writers and others who never receive the acclaim they deserve.  But here’s to all those decent, kind, caring people who slog away unseen, without reward, but who make this world a better place to live in by their efforts. Marcus’ smile and good humour will live on alongside his score.

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