Brexit-Era Britain’s ‘Last Hope’ Bows to Reality

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Every once in a while the world of sport seems to provide the perfect metaphor for a national moment.

It’s no more than a sad coincidence, but when the U.K. tennis star Andy Murray announced tearfully on Friday that this month’s Australian Open might be his last grand slam event, it seemed to wrap up a particular chapter of the Brexit saga.

It was only shortly after Britain was shocked by the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union that Murray won his second Wimbledon title, cementing his place as one of the nation's greatest athletes. He's a Scot, and Scotland has a complicated relationship with the rest of the U.K., but from the moment he first won Wimbledon, ending a 77-year wait for a male champion, he was embraced by all as an emblem of national cool.

It was just what the doctor ordered. Leavers were jubilant after the vote, but Remainers were disconsolate and some were in denial. Britain was still in shock. And Iceland had just delivered England's worst humiliation in a World Cup soccer match since a loss to the U.S. in 1950. Earlier in the tournament, a reporter had asked Murray how he felt about being the nation's "last hope." 

"It's not that bad, is it?" Murray asked back. "Is it that bad?"

That all depended where you were; on who you were. On the Sunday of the Wimbledon final, watching from the Royal Box overlooking the perfectly manicured center court grass as Murray defeated Canadian Milos Raonic was David Cameron, the prime minister who fatefully sponsored the Brexit referendum. After Murray acknowledged the prime minister in his victory interview, the London crowd started booing. Murray came to the rescue.

"You know,” he declared, “I think playing in a Wimbledon final is tough, but I certainly wouldn't like to be a prime minister. It's an impossible job."

A day later, a soon-to-be new prime minister would address voters in words that would come back to haunt her: "Brexit means Brexit. And we are going to make a success of it." It was a moment when some patriotic Remainers passed from denial to acceptance. Britain is a great country, they figured. Hadn't it been on the winning side of two world wars? It would show Europe how to leave with dignity. Even Murray seemed to capture the mood. "It's time to unite and make the best of it," he said.

Murray would go on that year to win Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro and then return to London to dominate the ATP World Tour Finals, featuring the world’s top eight players. People spoke of Murray Mania and his photo seemed to be everywhere; he was awarded a knighthood. But when Wimbledon came around in 2017, Murray was hurt and looked nothing like he had the year before. He lost to the towering American Sam Querrey in a five-set quarterfinal that was painful to watch at times. Suddenly, grit, guile and speed were no longer enough.

What came afterward was surgery, rehabilitation and false starts leading up to Friday's emotional press conference in Melbourne. Things hadn't gone according to plan. While Murray said he hopes to retire after Wimbledon this year, he isn't sure he'll make it that far; he's been living with constant pain and it may get to be too much.

The British Parliament is due to vote on a Brexit deal on Tuesday that is nobody's idea of a victory. There's even a chance that the U.K. will leave the EU after four decades without even working out the terms of the divorce. Prime Minister Theresa May no longer says "success" and "Brexit" in the same sentence if she can help it. She's just trying, like the injured Murray, to stay in the game; it's no longer about lifting any trophy. Cameron was recently spotted surfing in Costa Rica.

Back during that historic 2016 Wimbledon, the Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer was circumspect about the Brexit vote.

"I don't even want to think about the negotiations that go into it now for you guys,” he told Britons presciently. “It's going to be years of negotiations." But then he threw in that signature optimism without which no athlete endures.

"It's nice to have democracy here, and that you have an opportunity to vote,” he said. “It's a beautiful thing."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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