Sunday 20 August 2017

Andy Murray... The ins and outs of making a tennis champion

As world number one Andy Murray begins the defence of his Wimbledon title tomorrow, our reporter looks at the tragedy, his rivalries and the women who have shaped his life

Andy and Kim Murray arriving at the Wimbledon Champions Dinner last year
Andy and Kim Murray arriving at the Wimbledon Champions Dinner last year
Andy Murray with coach Amelie Mauresmo
Kim Sears makes a point with her t-shirt
Andy and Kim on their wedding day
Andy Murray's mum, Judy
Andy Murray wins Wimbledon
Primary 1 class at Dunblane Primary School, pictured with teacher Gwenne Mayor, who was killed with sixteen of the children as gunman Thomas Hamilton burst into the class, shooting indiscriminately.

Donal Lynch

The late, great essayist David Foster Wallace drew a key distinction between tennis's greatest icons - Federer and Nadal. Federer, Wallace said, was the artist, the dancer, the creator. Nadal was the superhero, the athlete, the avatar for war.

As you might expect, Wallace himself preferred Federer. He wrote, awestruck, of the "great liquid whip" of Federer's forehand and described the live experience of the Swiss maestro as being akin to a "religious experience".

Wallace died by suicide in 2008, a few months after he last wrote about tennis, and a couple of years before tennis's Mount Rushmore was expanded from The Big Two to The Big Four, comprising Federer and Nadal along with the rubber-limbed Serbian Novak Djokovic and a gnarly, grouchy Scot with the flattest monotone ever produced by a human: Andy Murray. Both of the new upstarts played retrieving, attritional games and neither quite endeared themselves to fans in the same way.

Where Federer and Nadal had an almost mythic quality, their younger rivals seemed like regular teenagers who just happened to be top class athletes. Where Federer was regal, Murray was slouchy. Where Nadal was a bull, Djokovic seemed like a hare. Neither of the younger men provoked quite the same fervour.

Primary 1 class at Dunblane Primary School, pictured with teacher Gwenne Mayor, who was killed with sixteen of the children as gunman Thomas Hamilton burst into the class, shooting indiscriminately.
Primary 1 class at Dunblane Primary School, pictured with teacher Gwenne Mayor, who was killed with sixteen of the children as gunman Thomas Hamilton burst into the class, shooting indiscriminately.

Djokovic was openly booed at the US Open when he played Federer in 2011 and nobody who watched Murray snarling at his mother in the stand could possibly confuse his on-court aura with a religious experience. They were the new foils, the party poopers, generally standing in the way of the final the public actually wanted, which was always Federer-Nadal. But where the Djoker could at least eventually lay claim to a record which nips at the heels of Federer and Nadal, Murray accumulated a losing head-to-head against the other three, his current haul of three Grand Slams looking a little scant beside Federer's gargantuan 18.

"He's part of the Big Four," said John McEnroe of Murray recently, "but he's a distant fourth."

And yet, while he may not be iconic, glamorous or have a game that necessarily provokes breathless superlatives, Murray is somehow more relatable and more real than any of the tennis gods above him in the pantheon. He has somehow ascended his sport's Mount Olympus while remaining a typically salty Scot. He has a brilliantly dry sense of humour and is also what you might call a progressive pin-up, worshipped for his vocally liberal views, while destroying all comers in the WAG stakes.

But don't let that last bit make you think he's not a woman's man. In a sport that has historically been at the forefront of society's fault lines on sexism, he is an unabashed feminist. He was, of course, groomed for greatness by his mother Judy, a tennis coach and accomplished player herself, and in his mid career caused much murmuring by hiring former Wimbledon winner Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. Mauresmo was, of course, the last openly gay grand slam winner and Murray has also been a vocal LGBT ally. He has recently called for the Margaret Court Arena to be renamed following Court's Old Testament pronouncements on gay marriage.

Celebrity fan JK Rowling recently wrote that she had lost count of the reasons to worship him. Even the Daily Mail, an organ diametrically opposed to his politics, called 'Sir Undy', "a knight for all of us".

Unusually for a sport populated by hothoused wunderkinds, Murray also had formative life experiences which put any exploits on the court into perspective. While the majority of elite players come from the tennis hotbeds of Eastern Europe, Australia and America, Murray hailed from a part of the world that had become a byword for tragedy: Dunblane, Scotland. Sixteen children were murdered along with their teacher on March 13, 1996 when Thomas Hamilton broke into the gymnasium of the town's primary school armed with four handguns and 700 rounds of ammunition and began shooting at a class of five- and six-year-olds.

Kim Sears makes a point with her t-shirt
Kim Sears makes a point with her t-shirt

The young Murray, then eight, and his brother Jamie, two years older, were in the school at the time. Their mother, Judy, first heard about the shooting while at work in the family toy shop in the Scottish town, she said, at which point she picked up her car keys and ran. "I was driving there thinking I might not see my children again. There were too many cars on the road - everyone was trying to get there. I got angry, shouting 'Get out of the way!' About a quarter of a mile away I just got out and ran", she told the Radio Times. She arrived at the school gates, which were closed, to join a group of other parents. "People weren't frantic. They were shocked, quiet. It was before mobile phones. Nobody knew anything."

The families were moved to a classroom and told to wait, she said, packed in so tightly that she was sharing a chair with a woman she had been to school with. Eventually a policeman came and asked the parents of one particular class to leave with him. "The girl sharing my chair said 'That's my daughter's class'. I don't know if I have survivor's guilt, but I had an awful moment then when I was so relieved it wasn't my kids, and then felt terrible. She lost her daughter."

Both Andy and his brother Jamie, who won the Wimbledon mixed doubles championship in 2007, had known Hamilton as children and his mother had given Hamilton a lift in their car. Andy broke down in tears a number of years ago when asked about his memories of the murders for a BBC documentary, saying that as a child "you have no idea how tough something like that is, and then as you start to get older, you realise... It wasn't until a few years ago I started to research it and look into it a lot, because I didn't really want to know".

Murray's sanctuary from the painful memories of the massacre became the tennis court. Judy had herself been an elite player - she played many top level matches in Ireland - and she gave both her boys a grounding in what is technically one of the most difficult sports to master. A chance conversation with junior rival Nadal convinced Murray that a move to Spain, where he could train outdoors year-round would give the best scope to his ambition. Judy herself had narrowly missed out on a top-flight professional career and she knew that certain sacrifices would be necessary to make it to the top. She agreed to let her then 14-year-old son travel to train at the Sanchez-Casal Academy. On his first day the homesick, acne-ravaged teenager was met by former professional Emilio Sanchez Vicario, brother of female legend Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Emilio had confessed to a scepticism about Murray's conditioning, describing him as "tall, skinny and not a proper player" so he challenged the youngster to a match, in which Murray promptly meted out a 6-3, 6-1 thrashing.

As a junior Murray was a standout player but the transition to the professional game is never guaranteed. A large part of his ability to make this leap was that he was part of a new breed of player who were tall - he stands 6'3" - but also incredibly quick. His early success whetted the appetite of the British press for the prospect of a British champion at SW19. Murray caused uproar one year at Wimbledon when he announced that he'd be cheering for anyone but England in the World Cup, but assuredly comments like that would be forgotten if he ended the drought of local champions, which stretched all the way back to Fred Perry in the 1930s. The problem seemed to be that Murray in his early career at least seemed to have settled into a very British tendency to get as far as being runner-up and no further. Five times he reached a slam final before being turned back. A further six times he got as far as the semi-finals. The final piece of the puzzle for him in his career came with the hiring of 1980s legend Ivan Lendl. He reined in Murray's damaging tendency to on-court self-flagellation and self-pitying gesticulations to his box. He trained the young Scot to be the methodical killer that Lendl himself had once been.

In 2012 their work paid off. In the murky heat of Queens, Murray was crowned US Open champion. The following year he won his first Olympic title and followed it up at SW19 where a capacity crowd, including William and Kate, Posh and Becks and several former James Bonds, watched him become the first British player in 77 years to win the Wimbledon title.

Andy Murray's mum, Judy
Andy Murray's mum, Judy

Last year he repeated the feat, sealing his legend status, his knighthood, and the fulfilment of his ambition. In his tremulous winner's speech on Centre Court he paid generous tribute to the two women in his life. Judy was first naturally, followed by Kim Sears, his then girlfriend.

Sears had been almost as permanent a fixture as tennis in Murray's life. They met when they were teenagers during the US Open in 2005. Murray was playing in only his second Grand Slam tournament, while Sears was travelling with her tennis coach father Nigel. They became an item and when he won his first title in 2007 he jumped into the stands to plant a kiss on her lips.

Following a brief split the couple got back together in 2010 and after having to field constant questions over the years on when he would propose. Sears was compared to 'waity Katey' - Kate Middleton - in reference to the duchess's tenacious patience as Will hesitated to produce a ring. At the same time Sears was a huge presence in Murray's box, with a tendency to gesticulate theatrically and cheer for her man in a way not seen at Wimbledon since Brooke Shields supported Andre Agassi.

There was an incident two years ago during Murray's match against Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open semi-final, when she appeared to swear about Berdych. She was caught on camera seemingly mouthing "F***** have that you Czech flash f***". When the comment was televised she showed up for the next match, hair more perfect than ever, in a sweatshirt with the words "Parental Advisory Explicit Content" written across the front. Murray generally seemed bemused at her antics but he was also known to lash out in the direction of her and his box.

Their relationship persevered though. They were finally married at Dunblane Cathedral in April 2015. Last year Sears gave birth to their first child, a girl named Sophia Olivia.

While Murray has won only one minor title this year he is the current world number one and a threat to win anywhere he plays. Although he is now 30 he may still have a few years left at the top of the game - Roger Federer and Serena Williams have shown that it is possible to win in your mid thirties.

Nadal and Federer will be the favourites at this year's Wimbledon but this has always been Murray's best tournament. A third title in 'the Cathedral' (as Centre Court is known) would be the fitting icing on the cake of a glorious career. And seeing one of the good guys in sport win again before a packed royal box would be, if not religious, then certainly a little spiritual.

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