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Ed Smith

Reading the Game

Andy Murray is a champion, but not quite a national hero – which is a stroke of luck 

 

Ed Smith | May/June 2013

Lucky the sportsman who is respected rather than adored. The sporting public tends to turn against those it loves not wisely but too well. Far better to earn gradual, grudging respect. Not only is it more sustainable: it is also much more sustaining. 

Andy Murray is not quite a national hero in Britain, and for his own good, he should try to keep it that way. The hero business is overrated—just ask George Best or Paul Gascoigne. What looks like bad luck is more a case of dodging a bullet. 

For much of his career, he has had an air of grievance. Unusually for a sportsman, this is justified. It wasn’t fair that the British public had used up large stocks of patience on the frustrating career of Tim Henman (though he too was underrated). "Here we go again, the plucky British loser" was never remotely right for Murray, but it was close enough to inspire default British pessimism. He was clearly good enough to win a grand-slam title years ago, and would have done so in any other era. The fans retrofitted his performances to suit their gloomy national stereotype. 

Nor was it fair that Murray’s Scottishness counted against him. It’s no coincidence that he looked suddenly comfortable on the way to the gold medal at the Olympics. For once, a sense of patriotism settled naturally over the crowd; they had come to support Team GB as well as Murray. That doesn’t apply at Wimbledon proper. Few SW19 regulars think of Scotland as part of their homeland, unless they have a hunting lodge in the Highlands. 

It wasn’t fair that Murray shouldered the burden of national neurosis about not having won a men’s grand slam since 1936. Any sane person would be driven mad by being asked "When are you going to win a major?" a thousand times a year. Nor was it fair that he landed in the strongest era in tennis history. But the quality of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic is only part of the story. Their charm loomed over him too. Federer’s demeanour rewrote the stereotype of a winner, demolishing the idea that surly brats make true champions and setting a benchmark for courtesy that was almost as hard to emulate as his topspin forehand. 

It’s tough enough trying to be the first Brit to win a major for 70 years. And then a second demand is bolted on, just for laughs: you have to win with grace. It was like trying to topple Muhammad Ali. OK, you won the fight, but where are the rhyming couplets?  Murray’s first two grand-slam final defeats, at the US Open in 2008 and the Australian in 2010, were both against Federer. They were unhappy nights, and the sight of the urbane Swiss taking apart the scruffy, pigeon-toed Scot inspired a lot of psychobabble. Murray would never win until he had a shave/got a haircut/developed a suntan. When Federer reduced Murray to tears at Wimbledon in 2012, even Charles Moore, the distinguished conservative journalist, was moved to write that "the better culture won". It was unfair—Federer was not criticised for crying when Nadal beat him in Melbourne in 2009—but it touched a chord. 

Even in triumph, Murray has been denied his moment of national epiphany. The Olympic gold was great, but it didn't shake off the ball-and-chain question about winning a major. Murray then did exactly that—late in a New York evening. How appropriately muted that he finally broke the 76-year wait for a male British grand-slam winner when most of his fans were asleep.

This month, with Murray missing the French Open due to a back injury, the British public was denied the familiar pleasure of watching him compete at the business end of the grandest tournaments. And yet even now, we don’t quite grasp the scale of Murray’s achievements. He and Djokovic have mastered what once looked impossible and broken the Federer-Nadal duopoly. That took pluck as well as incredible skill. At its peak in the late 2000s, the Nadal-Federer axis was like an alliance of superpowers. We are rivals, we are friends, everyone loves us, why change a thing? 

With Djokovic, Murray has broken up the love-in. First he did it by hanging around the fringes of power. In 2011, he became only the seventh man ever to reach the semi-finals at all four slams in the same season. Even before he won a major, his consistency placed him in an elite club. 

These days Murray doesn’t just hang in there with the best. He can dominate them. In this year’s Australian Open semi-final, he beat Federer at his own game, out-serving and out-hitting him. For me, Murray is Britain’s greatest current sportsman. Of all the major sports, none is enjoying a more glorious era than men’s tennis. Murray lives at the top of the sport that is on top. 

Why, then, does he still battle for acceptance? No one becomes a national hero by accident: that dubious honour falls to stars with a strand of neediness. The public responds most emotionally to sportsmen whose brilliance comes with showmanship and vulnerability. Some players want to be loved as much as to win. So the fan, in his own imagination, becomes part devotee, part parent-figure. It is a dangerous relationship for a sportsman. 

Murray doesn’t radiate neediness, and, like a player blocking a serve, the crowd stay cool in return. Murray is not indifferent to adulation, but it is clearly incidental. He just wants to win. His relationship with the British public is more of an arranged marriage than a love match. But it is holding up well enough: a deepening companionship, not a passing infatuation. 

One day, we will see how lucky we’ve been. Murray’s good fortune, ironically, is that it is taking us so long. 

Wimbledon 2013 June 24th to July 7th

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