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Ghosts of past haunt Murray's grand plans

Britain is the stage for two of the most impressively stubborn vigils in world sport. The England football team's inability to reach the final of an international tournament for 45 summers vies with the 75-year wait for a British man to win one of tennis's four grand slam singles titles. Fred Perry is just weekend wear for ageing Mods.

On Friday the English FA's Trevor Brooking launched a national programme to drag young English footballers into the mainstream of skills-based play. And in Melbourne, Andy Murray knocked out David Ferrer to reach his third grand slam final. With Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer already out, Murray could smell his best chance of exorcising Perry's ghost, against Novak Djokovic, a formidable adversary but not a serial finisher in the class of Federer or Nadal.

This is not Wimbledon: the Arcadia where Britain would most like to close the door on Perry, who won the last of his three Wimbledon titles in 1936, and who performed for the tennis-loving classes the role Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst enact in football. In both narratives nostalgia runs low.

Perry took his laurels to the grave and the cult of 1966 acts these days as an indictment of subsequent attempts to compete with international football's major powers.

Murray has never appeared eager to take to the court as an emblem of British frustration. In a lonely sport of one v one there is enough to cope with without introducing oneself as Her Majesty's representative. The idea of him as a specifically British tennis player is Britain's, not his. History's dead hand can only weigh upon his strokes.

But when the grand slam final commences, these choices are taken from him. He is Britain's Andy Murray. The long fiasco of non-achievement in a sport that calls south-west London home plays out not only in Britain but across the world.

It is a default feature article for American tennis writers at Wimbledon and a great source of mirth, no doubt, in smaller countries who produce better players on a slither of the Lawn Tennis Association's strawberry and Pimm's-inflated budget.

The untameable itch is a staple of this sporting life. In baseball, now that the Boston Red Sox are off their cross, Americans offer the Chicago Cubs and their 103-year wait for a World Series title as a greater nag than that of British tennis. In Holland football's World Cup is like a ball tied to the toe of a clown. The Dutch reach down to pick it up and it flies back out of reach.

The grand slam of golf -- all four major titles in a single calendar year -- has remained elusive, even to Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, and Pete Sampras, Federer and Nadal have never matched Rod Laver's tennis grand slam of 1969. In football Newcastle United have not won the league since 1927.

In golf again the journeyman American Jay Delsing has contested and failed to win a record number of tournaments (currently 565).

With fondness we remember the Turf's worst horses: Amrullah, a serial runner-up, who ran 74 times without winning but surrendered that record to Quixall Crossett, who reached 103 outings without passing the post in front and was described by the Racing Post as "a seriously slow maiden in danger of becoming a folk hero".

In Australia today's outcome reflects another distinction: not between good and bad but good and good enough. Tim Henman lacked the pure talent to win a grand slam title but overachieved in applying all the tools at his disposal. Relative to capability, Henman went further than he was entitled but not far enough for a demanding British public, which left him stranded and at the mercy of what Salman Rushdie called, long before the blogosphere, Britain's "culture of disparagement".

Murray advanced to face Djokovic with the opposite dilemma. No less exhausting to watch than Henman (his important wins are seldom smooth), he is blessed with the necessary arsenal to pass into the small hall of grand slam title winners -- blessed, and therefore cursed, because with real talent comes the demand that it must be consummated.

By an accident of history -- or perhaps the failings of British tennis are too kindly called misfortune -- Murray's career is defined by all that came before his graduation to the world elite, before Henman, before his own birth, and all the way back to the start of appeasement, when Perry was assumed to be the latest, not the last, of the musketeers.

On court Murray is quite plainly tied into a struggle with himself, his lapses of precision and aggression, not with the map of grand slam title-winning nationalities. Here Sunday started early and with excitement.

An individual was on a private quest, along with an entourage of 60 million.


Murray v Djokovic,

Eurosport, BBC 2, 8.0am

Sunday Indo Sport