An Exercise In Spin

Wimbledon has arrived, and with it, the annual dawning of the great British summer. ‘Tis the season of knockabout tennis games, Test Match Special on the radio, and I’m catching up with the transfer gossip in some corner of a foreign beach that is forever Arsenal. It’s almost impossible to stifle a grin flicking through the programme for the next couple of months: Lions matches, Ashes tests, golf majors and F1 races are popping up all over the place, like rabbits on amphetamines. The festivities at the All England Club are always the first sign of the sporting Eden just on the horizon; there’s something peculiarly uplifting about punnets of creamy strawberries and the soft thudding of felt on string, hinting at the bliss of a whole summer that lies ahead.

And, of course, no Wimbledon fortnight is complete without a good old moan about the state of British tennis; rather sportingly, most of our lot have already packed their bags, obliging us all with plenty to gripe about, and temporarily placating the French. Naturally, the two that are left in are going to cop all manner of flak – just wait until Laura Robson’s gutsy streak eventually comes to an end – with some of the criticism thrown at Andy Murray reaching all-time record levels of silliness. The latest grumble doing the rounds is that his ruthless habit of winning is inherently un-British – as if he has crassly forgotten to throw in the odd five-set nerve-shredder against a qualifier, or ought to be more foppishly self-effacing in victory. (This has to be up there in the league table of daft complaints with that of a slightly batty lady yesterday, who enquired, on learning that my friend and I were supporting Argentinian Martin Alund against David Ferrer, whether we had forgotten what they had done to our ships. Just wait until she finds out about the Armada.)

 It was no doubt this sort of misguided Muzza-bashing that Jo McCusker of the BBC had in her sights when she made her recent documentary about the British no. 1; airing it on the eve of Wimbledon fortnight, apart from making obvious scheduling sense, was surely part of a plan to improve, and perhaps even rehabilitate, his relationship with the public. The hour-long programme points to the 2006 World Cup prediction incident as a noticeable scar on Murray’s image – Tim Henman’s recollection of the gentle Anglo-Scottish ribbing as “just banter” provokes a giggle – and as just one of the many mountainous tensions that have arisen out of circumstantial molehills. Likewise, Andy’s supposedly “surly” demeanour is shown to be the product of two forces within him: a mean competitive streak, and a reluctance to put himself on display after the vitriol hurled in his direction in 2006.

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The latter is compellingly argued, with footage uncovered of a cheeky 18-year-old Murray running rings around an American journo in 2005; and the programme takes great pains to showcase his acerbic wit. For all of the fawning tributes from the ubiquitous James Corden, none speak quite as loud as Murray’s whoop of joy at hitting coach Ivan Lendl with a forehand at a recent Queen’s exhibition game, or wicked grin as his yelping physio Andy Ireland actually tries out an ice-bath. There is a certain irony in the way that the BBC programme pokes fun at Murray’s recent PR drive – complete with an editor of Vogue who has more than a hint of the Edna Mode‘s about her – but for the most part, he is shown as a refreshingly normal bloke with his feet squarely on the floor. That you have to dig a little below the surface to discover this is only a credit to the British no. 1; there’s always something a bit disingenuous about the superstars that go well out of their way to publicly assert their normalcy – the retirement of “Freddie” Flintoff was an interesting example – like that one friend who’s always trying to flog a couple of queue jumps for Camera on the back of being good company. 

Murray comes across as an ordinary guy – albeit with pretty decent hand-eye co-ordination – quite simply because he distances himself from efforts to humanize his image. In the great professional era of sport, in which cynicism is pervasive, the harder you try to appear genuine, the more manufactured you look; ordinariness is something that can only be glimpsed by accident, like a mischievous smirk, or a tear hastily blinked away (or in Murray’s case, the superb biographical detail that he likes to research things on Wikipedia). This is perhaps one of the reasons why the portion of the programme in which Andy was interviewed about the Dunblane massacre made for uncomfortable viewing: because we have learned to associate the heart-to-heart interview with Lance Armstrong’s confession and Tiger Woods’ apology – with artificial attempts to repair damaged sporting portfolios. Sue Barker dealt with the issue very respectfully and delicately, and it was important to show how influential the event has been in shaping Andy’s life, and why Dunblane has rallied around him; but we could also see how uncomfortable he was in displaying his very genuine grief publicly, in an interview that had been staged to provoke it. Tim Henman states later on in the documentary how sad it was that it took Murray’s emotional response to his defeat in the 2012 Wimbledon final for the public to identify with him; yet The Man Behind the Racquet was made precisely to further that identification, and was advertised on BBC Sport’s website on Sunday night with the unique selling point that its subject had cried during his recollections of this terrible and traumatic incident.

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This, then, is the Catch-22 of the humanizing documentary: that being “genuine”, like being modest or being economical with words, is not something that you can insist on. The BBC’s programme, though made with the admirable intention of normalizing the British no. 1, cannot escape our cynical attitude towards the media; it is the spontaneous things that really allow us to identify with our sporting heroes.