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The Wimbledon Fortnight – Day Eight: Triumph and Disaster

It's Manic Monday! Which means every player still left has to play today. On this busy day, I'd like to calm down a bit by analysing Wimbledon-related poetry.

Let’s get literary for a second. Earlier, I compared great tennis matches to reading a compelling book. And I’m not the only one who seems a connection between tennis and literature: at the gates of Centre Court, right before the players come up, the following words are printed: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same”. Want to know who wrote these words, and what they mean? Read on!

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
    And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    ⁠And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    ⁠Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
    ⁠And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!

If— by Rudyard Kipling must be one of the most famous poems in the world – and not just because of its connection to Wimbledon. (In fact, when I studied Kipling at University, and told them about how his words were used at Wimbledon, they looked at me as though I had lost my mind, for they had no idea what a Wimbledon was; it should come as no surprise, therefore, that I was the only one of my year even remotely interested in sports.) In a nationwide poll by the BBC, it was voted as the UK’s favourite poem. It makes sense: it’s a stiff-upper lip, quintessentially British poem, about how you should always stay focused, keep a clear head, and not let success get to you. And even if you fail, you should always start over again.

It seems to make perfect sense to have these words printed at a tennis stadium; for no sport is as individual as tennis, there is nobody to blame but yourself. Moreover, while losing a match can severely decrease one’s confidence, winning can be just as impactful. It messes with your head, for now there’s not only your own expectations, but also everyone else’s. If— is about perfection and finding that perfect middle ground, which isn’t easy at all.

This poem was written in 1895, a time in which masculinity was celebrated, and femininity was seen as inferior. Nowadays, If— is sometimes criticised for being too focused on masculine values, and ignoring feminine qualities. That’s why, in 1919 – and this is where we come full circle – the BBC asked spoken word artist Deanna Rodger to reimagine this famous poem for the modern-day woman. And guess who also did her own reading of it? Tennis superstar, Serena Williams.

I love If—, even if it isn’t the most feminist poem ever. I love its message and I love its structure. I feel inspired by it – and clearly I’m not the only one. I do wonder what all those tennis players think when they see those words right before they enter Centre Court – does it inspire them, too? Do they even look at it?

What do you think of If—? Which poem gives you the strength to carry on when you’re not feeling too confident about yourself? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

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