Wimbledon: Murray carrying hopes of a nation
Steely Scot can end Britain's 77-year wait for Wimbledon glory.
Andy Murray's story – the trip from a gangly teenager tentatively stepping out on Wimbledon's lawns to a magnificent athlete poised on the very lip of sporting greatness – is available for anyone to read. It is written in his neck. Eight years ago, when he first addressed Britain's urgent need for a home champion at the All England Club, his neck was a thin, stick-like thing, seeming barely substantial enough to hold his head in position. When he arrives on Centre Court to face Novak Djokovic in this afternoon's men's singles final, however, he will look as if he is auditioning for a role as the Incredible Hulk's body double. And it is in his neck that you can see the evidence of what makes Murray special: his absolute determination to realise the genius within him.
Over the past five years, Murray has completely rebuilt himself. He was always a good tennis player; from the first time he picked up a racket, the talent inherited from his mother Judy was evident in his timing, his control, the clockwork rhythm of his serve. His will to win was unquestionable, too. He has always been driven by an almost fanatical need for victory; in anything, from children's board games to knock-ups with his brother, he had to succeed.
But his body was compromising his ambition. Tall and skinny, he wasn't naturally equipped to sustain the enormous physical demands inherent in becoming a tennis champion. His arms were too scrawny to hammer backhand winners, his wrists too lean to return Howitzer serves, his legs not substantial enough to carry him through the long haul of a five-set match. As for his neck, well, there were flamingos with more muscle than could be found in his.
Murray, though, wanted to be champion very much. It was all he had thought about since he left Dunblane as a teenager, still bearing the mental scars of his close encounter with the gruesome mass murderer Thomas Hamilton while he was at primary school. Sensing that he needed something more than was available in the Lawn Tennis Association's system, he badgered his mother to let him train at an academy in Barcelona. There, honing his game against contemporaries such as Rafael Nadal, he began to suggest he could be in with a chance. It was a potential that became widely noted when he won the junior title at the US Open.
Murray arrived on the senior circuit at an interesting time for tennis in the UK. Tim Henman, his polite predecessor as Britain's sole contender, had reached the All England Club semi-final four times. But there was a sense that this was about as far as a Brit could go. Wimbledon, the nation's annual two-week obsession with the game, was something that foreigners, with their academies, their professional systems, their grunting desire, won. Britain were just good at hosting the thing and watching others walk away with the loot. The French might be morose about the fact no native has won the Tour de France since 1985, but Wimbledon has been won by a foreigner every year since Fred Perry last in 1936.
Britain had started to professionalise its sporting processes in rowing, cycling, even cricket, embracing science and technology to develop players, so how come they were not doing the same in tennis? After all, Wimbledon made enough money. The LTA was given more than £25 million a year from its profits to produce a winner. So why were they still waiting?
Almost from the moment he first arrived on the scene, Murray was invested with the hope that things might be about to change. On his fragile physique was entrusted the vicarious urge for local success: he was cast as the harbinger of hope, he was the man. And indeed, as he first began to rise up the rankings, he looked to be a different sort of beast to the elegant Henman. There was something compelling about his furious refusal to accept defeat. We may not have warmed to what appeared to be a sharp-edged personality, but we liked the fact that the boy was a trier.
Yet, in those early years, trying was not enough. Soon people began to worry that the wait to scratch the collective itch would go on beyond his career span. He was good, for sure. Good enough to rise to number four in the world rankings, a heady elevation at a time when any of his British contemporaries entering the top 100 were in danger of succumbing to a nose bleed. But ahead of him was the gilded trinity of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. We began to think that Murray was a terrific player but born at the wrong time.
But the Scot was not someone to be intimidated by fate. He refused to accept that he could not rise to the top. So he set about acquiring the requisites to make him a champion.
That meant remoulding his body. While others took a break from the circuit every January, he headed to Florida, where he hired fitness instructors to put him through what quickly became renowned as the most punishing of regimes. Every day through the season he was in the gym, lifting weights. How he worked to give himself the physical tools required to survive five sets, to hit the ball harder and further. His work-ethic was astonishing, his desire for self-improvement unquenchable. And when he smashed a winner on his way to his first semi-final at Wimbledon in 2009 and stood on the boards at the side of court, proudly flexing his muscles, it was all there, evident in his neck.
The problem was that, even as he surpassed Henman and began to reach Grand Slam finals, rather than succumbing heroically in the semis, Murray found his route was still blocked by the golden threesome: he lost to Federer, Djokovic and Nadal in the big ones. What he needed was someone who could help him make that ultimate step past them to the record books.
So, in the winter of 2011, he dispensed with the services of his coach, Miles Maclagan. He was a mate, Miles, his confidant, a skilled operator. But, as a former British failure himself, what did he know about what was needed to win a Grand Slam? Murray employed in his stead Ivan Lendl, the dour-faced Czech who reached 19 Grand Slam finals, winning eight of them. This was a man with the knowledge he needed. Not least because, like Murray, Lendl had lost four finals before he found a way to win.
The Czech didn't change much. The scientific programme that governed every inch of Murray's development remained in place. His fitness guys continued to work that neck. What Lendl did was concentrate on an even more important muscle: his brain.
Nobody enters a tennis match these days unprepared physically. The era of the gentleman amateur is long gone. There are no CB Fry figures in the game, stubbing out a cheroot courtside, thrashing out five sets before heading for dinner at their club. Everyone enters court prepped and honed.
In the gladiatorial arena of one-on-one sport, however, what makes the difference is attitude. The game is won in the mind. A player has to believe he can win. Somehow, Lendl persuaded Murray he was good enough to do it, that he had the physical wherewithal to lift the prizes. He showed him how remaining inscrutable off court saves energy for the important stuff, like winning matches. And he showed him how to be brave and bold in pursuit of victory. In short, Lendl taught him when to stick his neck out.
So it was that Murray turned into a champion. In 2012, he became the first Briton since Bunny Austin in 1937 to make the Wimbledon final, then picked up Olympic gold before finally, in September in Flushing Meadow, winning the US Open, that elusive first Slam.
This afternoon, as he enters his second Wimbledon final, Murray will need all of that combination of physical scale and mental steel. He is playing the world's best, Novak Djokovic, a man who long ago learnt how to marry physique to the control of temperament. Immediately after an astonishing five-set, four-hour semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro on Friday, the Serb showed not a glimmer of either exhaustion or exhilaration.
Calm, unflustered, equable, he appeared to have done nothing more than engage in a gentle warm-up. If it was an illusion, part of what he calls the "mental ability to stay tough", it was superbly done. Anyone watching would have immediately assumed this was an utterly indestructible opponent.
As he showed in winning those titles last summer, Murray is close to matching the Serb's impenetrable refusal to yield. He cannot falter against Djokovic, cannot demonstrate a mental chink; the mind games will be as crucial as the forehand winners. The prize is worth the endeavour. If Murray succeeds, if he negotiates the toughest of obstacles, his legend will be indelibly established among his fellow citizens. Never mind the US Open, what they crave is a Wimbledon win.
This is what will set Murray apart, turn him into the £100 million superstar of British sport: when he walks out he has within his grasp the opportunity to end seven decades of national embarrassment.