Yesterday Andy Murray brought an end to the angst of an entire nation becoming the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years. What made the win even more appreciable probably escaped the view of the casual tennis observer or even the sports enthusiast who caught the highlights on ESPN. What made Murray great was the struggle; the immense amount of persistence in suffering that resulted in a championship.
Winning Wimbledon is not easy. If you don’t understand the tournament allow me to fill you in. While Wimbledon gets better TV coverage than most tennis majors, the primetime stuff most of us see is only the last three rounds. The tournament actually takes two weeks and it consists of seven rounds. In perspective, there are 68 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament. There are 128 players competing in the bracket at Wimbledon.
For the men, each round consists of a best 3 out of 5 set match. I am not trying to diminish other sports. You’ve got to be a MAN to play football. Football games last about three hours, but there is a halftime and constant substitutions. Even the best players play somewhere between 45% - 55% of the game. In tennis there are no subs. It’s all about you, alone on the court against your opponent. A quick match is a minimum of two hours with the later round more competitive matches lasting as long as four to five hours. Cumulatively, tennis players are running about 3 miles in a dead sprint over the course of a match. Then, depending on the schedule, you have to turn around and play again within 48 hours, sometimes within 24.
Murray’s championship match was against world #1 Novak Djokavic. Great baseball pitchers have a 95+ MPH fastball. Djokavic has a 130+ MPH serve! He’s Nolan Ryan with a racket, on jet fuel. The match lasted over 3 hours in stifling heat. Both players were spent by the end of it. The final game was the best of the match. It was one of the longest of the entire tournament. That one game may go down as one of the greatest single games of tennis in tournament history. For those that appreciate great athletes the final game is one worth watching even if you hate tennis!
Murray has now won Wimbledon once, but he has lost it 7 times. The last few times he has lost it, he has done so in late rounds with the weight of his nation on his shoulders. Last year he lost Wimbledon in the final to Roger Federer. That was probably Federer’s swan-song. He is a great champion on his way out and a much younger Murray couldn’t overcome the much older, experienced player who was trying to do what no man has done. Federer has won Wimbledon as many times as Murray has lost it, 7 times! Murray was great, but destined to lose. Murray, classy but emotional, simply commented to his country after that match, “I’m getting closer.” Those words hung over every point Murray played yesterday, especially when he found himself down significantly not once, but twice throughout the course of the grueling match.
Murray’s coach is Ivan Lendl. Lendl was the world’s number one player for five years, 270 consecutive weeks. He was one of the top five greatest players of all time. He NEVER won Wimbledon. Ironically, Lendl was hired with one mission in mind; help Murray win Wimbledon. Even more ironic is that Lendl has never coached a pro player and has hardly picked up a racket in 19 years after seriously injuring his back.
During Murray’s final game it looked to me as if the usually emotionless Lendl was breaking down. To appreciate this you had to be a tennis fan back in the ’80’s. If you were, you probably had an Agassi mullet. I did! As a player, Lendl was nothing but a stoic, yet viscous fire. He NEVER smiled. He always looked like he could choke your granny and then go to lunch without any remorse. When Murray won Wimbledon Lendl not only teared up, but the man smiled, albeit for 3.8 seconds, but everyone watching saw it!
Most people don’t realize Murray was born with a knee defect. His knee cap is split in two pieces. It causes him extreme pain and has caused him to withdraw from several tournaments throughout his career. Yet yesterday, Murray was in the best shape of his life. He physically outlasted an amazing athlete in Djokavic. Since losing Wimbledon last year Murray dedicated himself to winning the tournament. In the past 12 months he has been unbeatable on grass courts (18-0) including an Olympic Gold Medal at Wimbledon, again in front of his home country. For a man with a split knee cap, working through the pain both on the court and in training is an amazing accomplishment.
So why such a long diatribe on a tennis match? There is a pertinent message for the Church here. I love sports, especially the back stories of great champions. Apparently, the author of several Biblical books, Paul, was also a sports fan. His letters to the churches are full of words and images drawn from the context of Greek sports.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV)”
“Holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” (Philippians 2:16-17, ESV)
“An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:5, ESV)
Paul’s frequent reference to the struggle of sport serves to remind the church, there is more to following Christ than what you see in the highlights. On ESPN Andy Murray’s win looks like five great shots in a few minutes, but in reality it was an excruciatingly disciplined journey executed successfully within a pre-determined set of rules.
Such is the call of the gospel. According to Paul in 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Christ calls us as well to an excruciatingly disciplined journey executed successfully within a pre-determined set of rules. There will be highlight moments, but each of them will come at great cost. Following Christ requires self-control, self-denial, self-sacrifice. The gospel calls us to suffer without excuses. Being a Christian is a constant journey toward being better tomorrow than you are today. Too many of us want an ESPN version of Christianity - all highlights, no discipline, so suffering, no sweat! This is not championship tennis and it is certainly not the gospel.
As great as Andy Murray’s win at Wimbledon was, he ultimately won a perishable, forgetful prize. One that in the end will amount to nothing. Do you know who won Wimbledon in 1888? How about 1988 or even 1988? How about 2008? Can you answer those questions without looking up the answer in a web search engine? Murray won a great prize. The way he did is inspiring. Yet for the follower of Christ we have a greater inspiration:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV)
We have a greater prize, one that is worth it all. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9, “They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” Because of the prize Andy Murray altered his life. His goal shaped him. His win was a highlight, but there are no highlights from his workouts or his diet. ESPN is not interested in covering the countless hours of hitting tennis balls with a coach it takes to win Wimbledon.
Like Murray focused on Wimbledon, the call of the gospel should shape the way we live our lives. The goal is worth it all. The church does not exist in the highlights. The church exists in the call of Christ to an excruciatingly disciplined journey executed successfully within a pre-determined set of rules. Let us deny ourselves - not for tennis, but for Christ. Let us suffer - not for tennis, but for Christ. May we alter our lives - not on the altar of sport or fame or for the highlight, but for the joy set before us in following Christ. The prize is worth is all!