Ten years ago the prospect of Andy Murray becoming the best male tennis player on earth would have looked like a miracle. He roared and tried, but on pipe cleaner legs, cramping and retching through sheer exhaustion, bombarded with negative disdain from an English nation who thought he didn’t like it. Remember? It seems like eons ago now, before two Wimbledon titles, two Olympic golds, a Davis Cup triumph, one US Open, a live TV cry, two dogs, one baby and mother Judy on Strictly Come Dancing intervened.
And it’s even harder now to reconjure the days pre-Murray Boys – elder brother Jamie, in his way, being as phenomenal in the doubles – when GB tennis players at any event were saddled with the reputation of being mocked and dispirited no-hopers. You could argue we had Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski as a bridging loan, precursors to the Murray era but, oh, the years of horrible, ribald cackling as doom-laden Brits surrendered themselves to Wimbledon, plodding in and skidding out again at humiliating speed.
You longed to gently prise that racket out of British hands and replace it with a Pimm’s. “Don’t do that, Jeremy,” was all you could murmur. Patriotism was buried under the rubble of shame. We had to adopt Bjorn and Martina instead.
So Murray has been one hell of a shock. His extraordinary rise to the pinnacle of his sport, one blessed with three of the greatest names in the history of the game – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic – playing concurrently, is a tribute to many things. But mainly himself. His belief, competitiveness (which knows no bounds) and, above all, his work ethic. God, how he has worked. The Bikram yoga sessions, sprints, weights, practice over and over again, endlessly and painfully, until the pipe cleaners reformed as the muscular springboard to the fastest game in the world.
At the outset he was condemned for being not just workshy but a hypochondriac, when a wrist injury forced him out of one Wimbledon. His Scottishness was also held against him, when very likely it was a boon, removing him from decades of English limpness on homegrown grass courts. His mother was deemed over-ambitious. Well perhaps so, if you count the endless campaigns she continues to run to spread sport in general and tennis in particular to a culture sprawled like a lump on its sofa. Her method is simple. Enjoy it. Her sons are her standard-bearers.
If one thing shines out from the career of the new men’s world No 1 it is his love of the sport. His passionate dislikes are obvious – from fame to bananas – but tennis itself, its statistics, history and art-form on court, remains a great fascination. How much that must have counted towards his perseverance. All those years of coming second, third or fourth to the great triumvirate failed to distract him. It is not so long ago that the universal truth held that he would never make Number One. Federer was too beautiful, Nadal too strong, Djokovic too competitive. All were mentally stronger.
Scrub that analysis. All wrong. Persistence, self-belief and graft removed every obstacle. Coupled with his famously wry sense of humour, he could make it an unprecedented hat-trick of BBC Sports Personality wins next month. How beloved can you be?
Well, even more so if you accept his example. He has transformed a world we thought was immutable, with support, passion and guts. There are many aspects of the modern sporting world that seem set in stone, but maybe we should reconsider. Women’s sport, particularly women’s team sport, is on the cusp of major change. But such is the economic freighting of most sports in favour of their male counterparts, you rarely hear athletes, organisations, observers enunciating the quest that has driven Murray all these years. To be at the top, bar none. To rank equally in public esteem and funding streams.
There’s no doubt that British tennis for years suffered from an inferiority complex. Maybe some of that sense of “knowing your place” also haunts women’s sport. It’s a vanishingly small minority of female team sport athletes who will assert that one day their sport will have the clout, charisma, crowds of the male game. They just can’t imagine it. But in the grip of our national tennis depression that went on for decades, neither could we imagine Andy Murray’s ascent. Great advocate of women’s equality that he is, he would understand this. Don’t take no for an answer. Even from yourself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles