Living with talent's curse
Irony in British public investing hopes in a surly Scot who refuses to play to the gallery, writes Paul Hayward
Out there in the shires and the urban cauldrons of a country that loves tennis for 14 days a year there was unanimity. Andy Murray can make Britain love him only by defeating the superbly debonair Roger Federer in the final of the Gentlemen's Singles Championship at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
Yes: the prize Murray will chase on Centre Court is a reward from polite society. It has not been bestowed on a British male since Fred Perry in 1936. But to conquer the game's Swiss deity, Murray will have to be brutal, domineering, indomitable, even when the game's most illustrious player is waving his racket like a great orchestra conductor. He will have to be, in other words, the intense, introverted recent graduate-type that so many armchair watchers of Wimbledon feel such ambivalence towards.
Murray has made an art form of mono-toned anti-emotionalism. Children ask: why does that man never smile? The cognoscenti answer: who cares? After his authoritative victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Friday's semi-final Murray was classically restrained in his public utterances. It would be "very nice", he said, to become the first British male champion since Hitler's time. To understand why a 25-year-old Scot should mistrust the once-a-year (mostly English) passion whipped up by Wimbledon, perhaps we should remember that Murray watched Tim Henman carry the same burden of national frustration on Centre Court and suffer the same whiplash of anger when it all went wonky.
Unlike Henman, who performed the role with stoicism, Murray decided that a private sanctuary of mistrust and non-revelation is the best place to retreat to when the last point is won or lost. This year at Wimbledon he has pointed to the skies in victory but refuses to explain why. Has he undergone a religious conversion? Is he acknowledging a lost friend or relative? "I'll keep that to myself," he told the BBC on Friday night, expressing perfectly his inability to understand the giddiness of our interest.
"Miserable sod," is how many casual watchers of tennis describe him. His audience-pleasing career got off to a terrible start. Wailing in the direction of one's mother and coach and making a show of every ache and pain was never likely to endear him to a crowd versed in the mental toughness of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Federer: the three cavaliers of this gilded age. It was not that Murray showed no emotion in his early days. The problem was that he displayed the wrong emotions, turning Centre Court into one long howl against the decades lost since Fred and Bunny were in their pomp.
But those agonies have passed. In consecutive knockout rounds, against David Ferrer and Tsonga, Murray was the master of his fate, mostly. He was the landlord, the commander of the court. Melodrama was not the headline act.
Instead we watched a man in control of his talent, his feelings and the opponent. Ivan Lendl, his new coach, endured similar Grand Slam torture early in his own successful career -- and is in tune with Murray's intolerance of cheap emotionalism.
There was never much hope that Brad Gilbert was going to convert this reflective son of Dunblane into a US Marine in tennis whites. Maybe what Murray needed was cooling down, not pumping up. Perhaps Lendl has helped him to trust the strength he must have inside to have come this far.
It is even possible that their shared anthem is Julian Cope's World Shut Your Mouth. Murray has never shown much interest in sporting the costume of national saviour or Fred Perry exorcist. But only success can fully liberate him from that duty. As Centre Court prepares to stage the perfect match between ageing grandeur and pugnacious British youth, Murray is poised at the breakthrough point. Victory over Federer would make curmudgeons and churls of those who continue to judge him by his low smile count and inscrutability.
Champions are complex. Thwarted champions-elect are even worse. Think Colin Montgomerie in golf or Paula Radcliffe in Olympic sport. They chase the grail alone but with 60 million others shouting at them from the sidelines, not always nicely. Henman gave up the fight as someone who had made the most of his talent, and often surpassed it. Murray is a better player. He lives with talent's nag. It demands to be fulfilled.
British society has changed a lot since a homegrown Wimbledon champion was as common as a red routemaster bus. Murray has changed a fair bit, too. No longer do we have to watch him stretching, gasping, hanging on. He has his hands on the controls now. Wednesday and Friday were dramatically different to the torture sessions of 2009-2011, when you knew each high would be followed by a crashing low.
If one weakness remains, it is confusion when he gets in front. Two sets up against Tsonga, his game went slack again and he lost the third, risking collapse in the match. The gift of Nadal's early exit was unwrapped. Any display of charity, though, will be ruthlessly punished by Federer.
Tennis champions are brutes. They have to be. They utilise their own talents and jump on the vulnerabilities of others. Federer seeks a Pete Sampras-equalling seventh Wimbledon title and is the hot favourite. There is pressure on him. But he knows what Murray will carry on to Centre Court.
Bunny Austin is filed away at last. Perry, on the other hand, still sends his ghost down the corridors of the All England Club.
One chasm has been crossed. The bigger one awaits. The love of the people is not much of a blessing because it is so fickle. It could depart again next year. Yet there is a beauty to the idea of Britain reclaiming tennis through a young man who displays little need or inclination to have us on his side.
Murray v Federer,
TG4, BBC 1, 2.0
Sunday Indo Sport