Why Mur­ray’s our great­est sports­man


THE arena at the Flan­ders Expo had cleared of all but the diehard Brits. They cheered, they sang, they pleaded for sou­venirs.

A selfie with the man of the hour. Some­thing to show the grand­chil­dren. Andy and me. Me and Andy. He held their smart­phones, one by one, and obliged.

Click. And again. Click. And again. Each time Andy Mur­ray took the mo­biles from the over­awed fans, be­cause his hands were no doubt stead­ier and he was lov­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence.

He en­gaged in small talk, he thanked them gra­ciously. All the way down the front row. And across at the court’s end. Then along the op­po­site side. And the other base­line. Then he re­peated it, one more time, for the shy ones or those stuck at the back.

He was still smil­ing and snap­ping away as he bounded to­wards the court­side exit roughly 45 min­utes later, a click for the vol­un­teers, a click for the stew­ards. ‘I have never seen a sports­man do that,’ said a Bel­gian lady, ad­mir­ingly, as he fi­nally dis­ap­peared. She was sur­prised at how nice he was and how po­lite. Peo­ple of­ten are.

Af­ter two Grand Slam vic­to­ries, an Olympic gold medal and the key role in Bri­tain’s first Davis Cup win since 1936, Andy Mur­ray re­turned from Bel­gium yes­ter­day an overnight suc­cess.

He smiled at the irony, when asked if he thought his lead­ing role in a Bri­tish vic­tory would fi­nally ce­ment his pop­u­lar­ity with the pub­lic. ‘The peo­ple in this team,’ he said, ‘we’re re­ally pop­u­lar with each other. And my friends and fam­ily — I still get on with them ex­tremely well.’

It was a typ­i­cal Mur­ray re­sponse. Dead­pan, but with a smile. You just have to look for it.


Mur­ray has long given up try­ing to win over those who will al­ways pick over an­cient his­tory. No, he doesn’t hate the English. No, he isn’t dour or mis­er­able or rude or un­pa­tri­otic or whiny.

He can be self­ish and he is ex­traor­di­nar­ily driven, but how could he be any other way?

Grand Slam ten­nis cham­pi­ons are not sup­posed to come from Dun­blane.

Roger Fed­erer and No­vak Djokovic grew up in ma­jor cities with good sports fa­cil­i­ties; Rafael Nadal’s un­cle, Miguel, was a great foot­baller with Barcelona and played 62 times for Spain.

Mur­ray’s fam­ily is sporty, too, but a grand­fa­ther who turned out for Stirling Al­bion and a mother who coached ten­nis at lo­cal lev­els in Scot­land is re­ally no pedi­gree, con­sid­er­ing what he has gone on to achieve.

It is pos­si­ble to re­gard Mur­ray as this coun­try’s great­est sports­man sim­ply by plac­ing his suc­cess in con­text. He is out there alone, a tiny is­land of ex­cel­lence adrift in medi­ocrity. Who was there to in­spire him? Who is there to fol­low him?

Even this team vic­tory was pretty much a one-man show. To lift the Davis Cup, Great Bri­tain won 12 matches over four rounds, and Mur­ray was in­volved in 11 of those vic­to­ries: eight as a sin­gles player, three in a dou­bles part­ner­ship with his brother, Jamie.

The Matthews FA Cup fi­nal? Botham’s Ashes? Ge­off Hurst’s hat-trick in 1966? Jonny Wilkin­son’s kick through the posts in the last minute of rugby’s World Cup?

Noth­ing com­pares with Mur­ray’s in­flu­ence on this Davis Cup. It is a sin­gu­lar achieve­ment in a team frame- work and all the more im­pres­sive for that.

Ten­nis is, at the sharp end, an in­di­vid­ual sport. Like golf, it is full of play­ers who could not ad­e­quately re­spond when asked to bend to the team dy­namic. Tiger Woods has been an al­most com­i­cally bad part­ner in Amer­i­can Ry­der Cup de­feats.

The greats of ten­nis can be a lit­tle stand- off­ish, too. The awk­ward tim­ing of Davis Cup matches — of­ten in close prox­im­ity to ma­jor cham­pi­onships — means many ten­nis stars see it as noth­ing more than an ir­ri­ta­tion.

Yet given the smell of team spirit with Bri­tain in 2015, Mur­ray has thrown him­self into the con­test.

Con­found­ing those who have doubted his pa­tri­o­tism, he pri­ori­tised Davis Cup prepa­ra­tion, then put his body on the line by play­ing three days straight in the last three rounds and was ready to give up sev­en­fig­ure prize money had it meant be­ing able to spend more time prac­tis­ing for the fi­nal on clay.


And on Sun­day, when he played an ut­terly sublime win­ning shot, in front of a par­ti­san Bel­gian crowd to claim the ti­tle for Great Bri­tain, he col­lapsed to the dirt, an emo­tional wreck over­whelmed by what his team had achieved.

Mur­ray has be­come emo­tional on court be­fore but never, he said, like it in vic­tory.

De­feated by Fed­erer at the Wim­ble­don fi­nal in 2012, he be­gan to thaw his re­la­tion­ship with the na­tion — we’re a strange bunch like that — by break­ing down on Cen­tre Court.

The fol­low­ing year, be­com­ing the first Bri­ton to win the men’s sin­gles since Fred Perry — as a rough guide, just about ev­ery­thing Mur­ray does makes him the first since Perry — there was still great emo­tion, but this time more re­lief than un­tram­melled joy. Win­ning Wim­ble­don, like his first Grand Slam — the U.S. Open in 2012 — was a mon­key off his back.

It is touch­ing that Mur­ray seems to take great­est plea­sure when he wins as part of a group — whether in this Davis Cup or the Olympic gold medal he earned as a part of another Team GB.

On that oc­ca­sion, he was im­mersed in the thrill of com­pan­ion­ship, too. While the su­per­stars of Amer­i­can sport, whether ten­nis or bas­ket­ball, have of­ten stayed away from the U.S. Olympic camp, even while sup­pos­edly rep­re­sent­ing their coun­try, there was no hint of haugh­ti­ness in Mur­ray’s ap­pear­ance at Lon­don 2012.

He is fas­ci­nated by other sports — box­ing, in par­tic­u­lar — and is driven to fresh heights by the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the team role. He stayed in the ath­letes’ vil­lage and cred­its his Olympic gold medal with se­cur­ing the mind­set needed to win his first Grand Slam.

This week­end, he im­me­di­ately in­sisted the lessons learned in Davis Cup play will aid him at the Aus­tralian Open in Jan­uary.

Per­haps this love of ca­ma­raderie comes from the iso­la­tion of his early ca­reer: the years spent as the only Brit on the elite cir­cuit, sur­rounded by noisy ta­bles of French and Span­ish play­ers; the teenager who spurned the Lawn Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion’s do­mes­tic fa­cil­i­ties for the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona.

He even talks of his for­ma­tive years in team terms — in this case, his mother, fa­ther and brother Jamie trav­el­ling to ju­nior tour­na­ments that al­ways ap­peared to be ‘about six hours away’, a tight lit­tle knot of Scot­tish ta­lent, alone and apart. It left him with a fierce com­pet­i­tive­ness, an up-by-the- boot­straps men­tal­ity that feels for­eign in the cos­seted world of the mod­ern sports­man.

‘Do you know that in Spain, at 18, your fund­ing stops?’ he once told me. ‘From there, you get noth­ing you haven’t earned for your­self. We’re still fund­ing guys at 27 and 28, but in the best ten­nis na­tion in the world you’re ba­si­cally on your own.’

It would ex­plain the at­ti­tude that, be­fore wife and fam­ily in­ter­vened, would take him to Mi­ami on his own at Christ­mas, warm weather train­ing in readi­ness for the new sea­son.

He would run ev­ery day, in­clud­ing Christ­mas Day, while telling him­self that when he won the Aus­tralian Open it would all be worth­while.

He has lost four Aus­tralian Open fi­nals — one to Fed­erer, three to Djokovic — but con­tin­ues with bullish talk of next year. This re­mains a work in progress. Like the very best sports­men, his de­sire for com­pe­ti­tion is in­sa­tiable.


Sir Alex Ferguson said that if Manch­ester United had in­jury prob­lems in any po­si­tion, Wayne Rooney would vol­un­teer for the job. Ferguson was once be­moan­ing a dearth of right-backs — Rooney’s role is at the other end of the field — and heard an al­most child­ishly keen voice. ‘I can play right-back. I’m a good right-back.’ It was Rooney.

Mur­ray is the same. When, af­ter train­ing last week, he over­heard a ten­nis writer ask­ing around for as­sis­tance with a crossword clue, it was Mur­ray who broke off from his warm- down to pro­vide an­swers, and then took over solv­ing the rest of the puz­zle.

At a knock­about quiz for the Davis Cup spon­sors, it was Mur­ray who fixed his gaze on the ques­tioner at the end and asked, in to­tal se­ri­ous­ness, who had won.

So it is no sur­prise that this is the player who has changed the per­cep­tion and sta­tus of ten­nis in Great Bri­tain. It is no sur­prise he has won through as good as sin­gle-hand­edly.

The only sur­prise is that it has taken so long for him to be ap­pre­ci­ated. He even won over the Bel­gians. He is a na­tional trea­sure. Only fools don’t get Andy Mur­ray now.

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