Before Andy Murray, British tennis was in nowhere land. No other sport possessed such a high standing in British national identity and yet such a miserable dearth of homegrown success. The green and pleasant lawns of Wimbledon had become a vestige to an England of old, which once upon a time dominated a very English sport. It was now only an annual home to excessive Pimm’s consumption and a regular cycle of very noble disappointments.
Andy Murray changed all that. A gangly frame of a boy, bludgeoned with constant heckling from pundits and spectators alike, he fought his way to the top and restored British tennis’s pride. And boy, did he fight. Tim Henman – a great player possessing an even greater character – came firmly from the British tennis establishment. He had family members who had played at Wimbledon and a grass tennis court in his back garden. Murray’s rise to the top, meanwhile, reads more like an epic. While clearly being blessed in having an incredibly dedicated coach as a mother, he had to constantly endure: whether it be living with the trauma of the Dunblane massacre, having to spend his teenage years abroad to further his development, or forever battling the pain of a chronic knee injury, Murray’s rise was a Hollywood tale of perseverance like few others.
When he finally got there, the off-court challenges did not stop. He was not the darling of British lawn tennis clubs as Henman had been before him. Instead, the tabloids christened him ‘Mopey Murray’: he was too frank, too ill-mannered, too not English. An off-the-cuff joke about supporting anyone but England at the 2006 World Cup became a running saga, haunting him for years. It was perhaps no surprise that he was so unwilling to speak about his views on Scottish independence, only revealing his support for a Yes vote with a last-minute tweet. Once again, the same knuckleheads came calling with more vile abuse, attacking the dedication of a man who had contributed more to British tennis than anyone else this century.
If it was not his politics, it was his family. The media asked why he was not more like his personable brother Jamie, who had won the nation’s hearts when he was the first Briton to win a Wimbledon title for twenty years with partner Jelena Jankovic. When Andy’s success finally made him too much of a British institution to receive so much unjustified derision, the haters gleefully maintained the barrage on his mother Judy. Invariably portrayed as the snarling tiger mum with a devil stare to boot, she became so self-conscious that she had her teeth whitened and straightened.
Yet what the media lampooned him for was also what made him a success. It was his competitive drive, so often portrayed as ungentlemanly, that won him his titles and restored the pride of British tennis. It was his frankness that made him such a great feminist, repeatedly ridiculing the institutional sexism that surrounds the sport. And it was his family that has helped push him to glory, making the sacrifices to pay for his training in Barcelona when the Lawn Tennis Association would not spare a penny of its large endowment. People even began to like his personality. What was once portrayed as dourness is now rightly seen as his dry wit. The man who was oft-portrayed a petulant boy was now winning over the country with a tearful tribute to the supporters who had stood by him and kept him going.
Time and time again Andy has proven those haters to be nothing more than envious bystanders, watching from afar as this lad from Dunblane tears apart the global tennis circuit. He emerged from one of Scotland’s darkest day to become the country’s greatest ever sportsperson, and – by many reputable accounts – the greatest British sportsperson of all time, while at the same time inspiring millions with how far a mixture of perseverance and basic decency can get you in life. For that, all we can do is thank him while we savour the swansong of his playing career. I fear it will be a while before we truly realise what we’ve all lost.