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.