The Outward Display of Prestige

In the scheme of things, awards ceremonies mean little. That Novak Djokovic won the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award tells us nothing about his 2011 season that we didn’t already know, although I suppose more people might now know it. If nothing else, it has provided a handy pretext for everyone associated with tennis to stridently assert the primacy of the sport. It’s a hard point to refute, given that a tennis player has won the award six times in the past eight years. (The other two awards went to Usain Bolt, twice, a decision that was difficult to fault.) I should add that those six awards remain the only times a tennis player has taken out the male category. One may wonder why, say, Rod Laver never won it. The answer is that he chose to begin his tennis career about four decades too early.

The Laureus Awards have only been around for 12 years, although from the outset it has set out to confound, or at least circumvent, the maxim that from little things big things grow. It started out big, and strove mightily to make up for a lack of tradition with displays of prestige’s outward trimmings – the winner’s statuettes are Cartier confections – in the justified hope that ostentation will tide things over until real prestige, which only comes with time, arrives. It is small the way the Nuremberg Rally was, and as carefully stage-managed. One imagines Albert Speer would have approved. This year’s awards were staged in London, and hosted by the astoundingly charming Clive Owen – full disclosure: my wife has a thing for him – who has taken over from Kevin Spacey.

Nonetheless, while the ceremony itself is glamorous twaddle, the processes by which the nominees and the eventual winner are decided are reassuringly rigorous. The initial nominations are determined by leading members of the world’s sporting media, in a sufficiently broad cross-section that nationalistic and disciplinary biases are subsumed. The actual winner is decided by a secret vote – overseen by PricewaterhouseCoopers – of the 47 member committee, comprising a selection of the greatest sportspeople the world has known, including the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tony Hawk and Steve Waugh. These, again, represent a wide range of sports and nations. Including the chairman (Edwin Moses), athletics sees the best representation, with nine members. Tennis is well-represented, with five. The United States, unsurprisingly, has the most representatives of any nation, both among the media and the committee. Despite this, and despite the fact that Americans generally perform well across the various categories – Kelly Slater has won the ‘Action’ category four times – Laureus remains largely unreported in the States, even though the USA as a nation seems to value awards ceremonies more than most. This fatal lack of interest presumably owes to the Laureus’ inclusion of sportspeople from the benighted parts of the globe – i.e. everywhere else – and because the award could never go to a university basketball coach. Elsewhere in the world it goes unreported because it’s an annual awards ceremony that isn’t the Oscars. This seems to be the way of things. I am a writer, yet I cannot tell you who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. But I know without checking that Colin Firth won Best Actor.

Roger Federer famously won the Laureus award four times in a row between 2005 and 2008, while Rafael Nadal took it in 2010. Now Novak Djokovic has it. The question has been raised – most succinctly by Ivan Ljubicic – of precisely what the powers that be are doing to capitalise on this, to translate global respect into the wholesale betterment of the sport. Awards ceremonies admittedly don’t mean much, but they could mean more if those powers were not so content merely to be. The top three male tennis players are among the most recognised sportspeople on the planet. Andy Murray, being British and therefore lauded and excoriated daily on some of the world’s most visited websites, isn’t far behind. Whatever their other shortcomings, none of these guys are stingy with their media commitments, and Djokovic’s determination to embrace publicity exceeds even Federer’s.

Nevertheless, it shouldn’t only be about the top four, just as it shouldn’t only be about the four majors. That’s arguably the real problem, the way global interest in tennis only stirs fitfully for the grand slams, and then only centres on the very top guys. Sometimes I question whether there is actually a mechanism by which all this accumulated prestige can trickle down, or whether tennis is too individualistic and too post-national to ever inspire frenzied adulation in general fans for other players. Is this level of support intrinsic to the tribal conceit of team-based league sports, or to international contests?

In other words, is a re-formatted Davis Cup really tennis’s best shot at the truly big time? A question for another time. For now, congratulations to Novak Djokovic.

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