Andy Murray: The champion who won our hearts

IMG_0499As the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards loom on the Christmas horizon, the name on everyone’s lips brought this nation to a standstill one Sunday afternoon in mid-Summer: Andy Murray.

During 2012, he had been one of a multitude of Olympic medal-winners who competed for the British public’s year-end vote, and despite winning gold—plus silver in mixed doubles—and going on to win his first Grand Slam at the US Open two months later, Murray came third in the BBC contest to the face of London 2012, Jessica Ennis, and the cyclist who not only won gold but also the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins.

This time around, on the 60th anniversary of the awards, Murray is the hot favourite to win. For on that summer Sunday in 2013, he finally lifted one very famous gold trophy to become the first Briton since Fred Perry 77 years ago to win Wimbledon.

The ride that the British public took with Murray through high summer was emotional, energy-sapping and ultimately thrilling. There was hardly a man, woman or child between London’s SW19 and Scotland’s Dunblane who had any doubt about the scale of the achievement should he win Wimbledon—or about that 77-year record. As the BBC proclaimed, Murray’s victory over Novak Djokovic filled not only the All England Club’s Centre and No2 Courts, not just “Murray Mound” and Dunblane’s Sports Centre—and pubs and clubs across the country—but it also drew the biggest TV audience since the Olympics: 17.3 million.

And it didn’t stop there. The Wimbledon website registered more users than any previous Grand Slam, 19.6 million, and Facebook drew 20 million more.

But it would be a long while before Murray—in the exhausting aftermath—could put his feet up: A nation continued to ride this wave on through the night and all next day.

First came post-match press, where any talk of celebration was quickly quashed:

We have to get to the ball…I’ll finish doing these things, have drug tests—yeah, [eventually] have fun with the team.

He managed just an hour’s sleep before the merry-go-round cranked up again the morning after the night before. Between 8 and 10.30am back at the All England Club, he was wheeled from one microphone to another. Then it was a charity fund-raiser for Adidas, and a chance for locals to hit with the champion. He made his final blog for the BBC website, did a Q and A on Twitter and Facebook, and hastened to 10 Downing Street for the obligatory reception.

Such is the regime for every champion, and something that the naturally reticent Murray has learned to take in his stride: “You may as well get used to it and try to enjoy it”, he said of his image-boosting photo-shoot for GQ magazine.

But with Murray there was, as there has always been, something admirably unstarry about him. As a timely BBC film showed the world, he is dedicated to his sport, to back-breaking hard work, to his terriers, and to the close-knit team of friends and family to whom he attributes so much of his success. Indeed so boring does he regard himself that he claims the media even gave up door-stepping the home he shares with his girl-friend of many years’ standing, Kim Sears.

And now that Murray has become the hero so long demanded by his home nation, this un-selfregarding quality has become a significant part of his appeal, though it was not always so.

As soon as he emerged from the junior ranks—he turned pro after winning the Junior US Open title at 17—Murray made his first appearance at Wimbledon in 2005 and reached the third round. He broke the top 10 just before he turned 20, reached the Wimbledon quarters in 2008, then made three consecutive semis before coming within touching distance of the title by reaching the final last year.

After his loss to Roger Federer, he wept, but he appeared finally to believe. He went on, a month later, to beat the same foe, Federer, and claim Olympic gold. Six weeks later, he was a Grand Slam champion at the US Open. The shackles, it seemed, were off.

Murray went on to reach the finals of the Australian Open and then to his fourth consecutive Grand Slam final at Wimbledon. But with 2012 glory still fresh in British minds, the burden of expectation was heavy on Murray’s shoulders. Only after his Wimbledon victory did he reveal the true weight of that burden:

It’s hard. It’s really hard. For the last four or five years, it’s been very, very tough, very stressful, a lot of pressure. The few days before the tournament, really difficult as well.

Despite the burden, though, there had been something different this time around. British expectation had changed to hope, courtesy of a growing affection for the man who not only wept on Centre Court but revealed so much more to Sue Barker in his BBC documentary.

From the impact on him of the Dunblane tragedy—he escaped it by minutes—to the comments of Sears, close friend Ross Hutchins and Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey, Murray revealed more of the emotional and witty individual who had previously appeared only fleetingly behind his press conference eyes.

But to his strength and sensitivity must be added two more qualities that make Murray the special champion he is.

The first is his understanding of the impact of what he achieves on others.

Few who have watched Murray’s evolution since tying up with Ivan Lendl almost two years ago would be surprised by the Briton’s acknowledgement of Lendl’s impact on his career—and credit is also owed to Murray’s astute self-analysis in recognising the kind of coach he needed for his own development. Many, however, would be surprised that Murray so firmly singled out Lendl after winning Wimbledon:

Ideally, he would have won it himself, but I think this was the next best thing for him. He believed in me when a lot of people didn’t. He stuck by me through tough losses. He’s been very patient with me. I’m just happy I managed to do it for him.

Then he acknowledged the people from his home town: “Thanks for always supporting me: I’m glad I managed to win this one for them.”

And even in addressing the press, he showed a need to prove something:

I know for you guys, it’s important that I win this tournament: You know I tried my best. I worked as hard as I could to do it.

Murray’s other special quality is his unswerving work ethic, apparent in his childhood determination to leave home to train in Spain and shining like a beacon through every loss, every knock-back. He has stood by the innate belief that working harder would eventually deliver its reward.

Take this, after losing to Rafael Nadal—a friend since Murray first went to Spain—for the third time at Wimbledon in 2011:

Work harder than I ever did before. Try and improve my game and get stronger. Be more professional. Try and learn from what happened and think about the things that I need to improve. That’s all you can do.

Every week, every month, you learn something new in your training, in your matches, in practice, your diet, the gym, the training that you do. I just need to try and get better.

Naturally, then, he attributed his Wimbledon victory to the same unglamorous strategy:

I think I persevered. That’s really been it, the story of my career probably. I had a lot of tough losses but I think every year I always improved a little bit…

I kept learning and I kept working as hard as I could. When I lost those matches, sometimes I dealt with them badly, but I think the last few losses that I’ve had in Slam finals I’ve dealt with them a lot better.

Federer also made an interesting observation about Murray’s road to success:

I think his confidence overall is higher today than it used to be just because of all his victories, all his performances day in, day out over many years now. It’s not just this year. People forget how consistent he’s actually been already since many years.

To me, he was always probably going to be a player who needed just a bit more time than let’s say a Nadal or a Djokovic. He’s more in my category where he just needed more time to fill out his game.

Murray’s Wimbledon victory was thrown into even sharper relief when he was forced to leave the tour in September after helping the GB Davis Cup team back into the World Group with two wins over Croatia.

A back problem that had dogged him for a couple of years—he had retired in his first match at the Rome Masters and subsequently withdrew from the French Open—finally proved too much and he underwent surgery that saw him miss the remainder of 2013.

But while he may have been off the tennis radar since September, he has remained firmly in focus when it comes to his public. His Wimbledon win became the most talked about topic on Facebook in the UK this year, ahead even of the death of Margaret Thatcher and the birth of the Royal baby. And it looks certain that he will become the first tennis player to win the BBC top award since the last British Wimbledon champion—Virginia Wade in 1977.

Murray returns to the tennis fray in Australia in the New Year, where he has reached more Grand Slam finals than any other. Let us not, though, expect an immediate victory from Murray, but rather continue the journey in hope with one rather special champion.

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