Did it start in tennis ? Or was it golf? Which TV sport coverage is responsible for making the instant post-match analysis an obligation for players?
Wimbledon must surely be the worst. A moment after the poor creatures have finished a gruelling contest against the world’s best, are they allowed off the court to have a pee/throw up/jump up and down/ bang their head against the wall? No, they have to stand there while Sue Barker shoves a mike under their nose and asks them how they feel.
It’s almost impossible for sportspeople to say anything in these situations which is of any value. For one thing, they’re knackered. But also, their sports psychologists teach them that they should (a) give themselves praise for playing well, and (b) walk away from a bad performance, (though later they will, of course, ‘learn from it’) - and putting this into words makes them sound (a) arrogant or (b) deluded.
Currently by far the best at post-match spin is Roger Federer, who has found fifty ways to indicate that he played outstandingly well without sounding conceited - something Tiger Woods has never quite managed. Recently, Roger has taken to saying that he’s really rather surprised himself by how good he is. This is an outright lie, of course, but he carries it off with that subtle effrontery he uses so well on court.
Cringe-making though they often are, post-match statements can be highly entertaining for the viewer who picks up on what scriptwriters call the subtext. So when Andrew Flintoff is wittering on about taking something positive from an Ashes defeat, we know that what he’s actually saying is: “We were crap, we know we were crap, and we’re totally pissed off about it, and right now I really, really want to stab Ricky Ponting. But failing that, I wouldn’t mind giving you a smack in the mouth, you annoying little interviewer person.” Similarly, it’s a pleasure to watch Arsene Wenger’s mask of headmasterly composure when you know that underneath lies a seething hunger for world domination.
The pre-match mission statement is even more of a minefield. Big yourself up too much and you’re tempting fate, praise the opponent too highly and you sound scared. Whatever you say will come back to haunt you. Again, Federer is clever at this, but most players opt for the safe and banal.
Nothing was safe or banal about the all-time master of the microphone, Mohammed Ali, who could unnerve an interviewer like no man before or since, and who quite possibly invented rap with his outrageous rhyming pre-fight prophecies. My own favourite, a couplet which for brevity and verve would make Alexander Pope spit with envy, is:
“This will shock and amaze ya -
But I am gonna beat Joe Frazier.”
(Say it out loud to yourself….) But no one else can do it. Imagine Andrew Murray shouting “I am the greatest!” One would just want him to be quietly led away.