12 September 2012
It was 10 years ago, when he was a scrawny teenager, that Andy Murray made the decision that was to put him on the road to becoming Britain’s first male Grand Slam champion for 76 years. The sports-mad Scot, who had chosen not to take up an offer to join one of the football youth academies at Rangers because he wanted to concentrate on his tennis, was playing at the European under-16 team tennis championships in Andorra when he had a conversation with a young Spaniard called Rafael Nadal.
Nadal told a wide-eyed Murray about training back home in the Majorca sun and practising with Carlos Moya, one of the world’s top players. Murray had never had the chance to hit with Tim Henman, the best British player of the day, and practised – when the Scottish weather relented or when he could play indoors – with his brother, Jamie, and a few county-level players. When he returned home, Murray told his mother: “Rafa’s out in the sun all day. He hardly goes to school and he’s playing four and a half hours a day. I’m playing four and a half hours a week. It’s not enough.”
The tennis world is full of pushy parents, but Judy, who won 64 junior and senior titles in Scottish tennis, and Willie Murray had never forced their boys to do anything they did not want to do. At the same time, they always gave their sons opportunities to develop their sporting prowess. Several years later, Andy sent his mother a Christmas card in which he thanked her for “always believing in me, always supporting me, always letting me make my own decisions… but I most want to thank you for being the best Mum in the world”.
Judy took Andy on an exploratory trip to the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona. He played Emilio Sanchez, a former top 10 player and one of the academy’s founders, and beat him 6-3, 6-1. The place was a total contrast to the training centres in Britain, where he felt most players were spoiled and lazy. No wonder British tennis had been in such a sorry state for so long.
Within weeks, 15-year-old Murray was back on a plane to Barcelona. Leaving home was not easy – despite the break-up of his parents’ marriage when he was 10, he had enjoyed a happy childhood – but Murray wanted to develop his game alongside people who were as serious about his tennis as he was.
Murray had first got a taste for tennis at Dunblane Sports Club, 200 yards from the family home. He played his first tournament when he was five and at eight made his debut alongside the men in the Central District Tennis League. John Clark, an architect in his 50s, remembers his young doubles partner approaching him during a match. “You’re standing a bit close to the net,” Murray told him. “You should stand back a bit as you might get lobbed if I decide to serve and volley.”
Growing up in Scotland’s smallest city was a happy time, despite the horror that descended upon Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996. Andy and Jamie were in school when 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton, who had run a boys’ club there and knew the Murray family, walked into the gym and shot dead 16 children and a teacher before turning a gun on himself. Andy, who remembers being on the way to the gym when his class were shepherded into another room, recalls little about the day. Even now, he does not like talking about it.
In Barcelona it soon became clear that Murray was a major talent. At 17 he won the boys’ title at the US Open, the setting for three of the biggest moments in his life. He reached his first Grand Slam final there four years later and on Monday night finally achieved his lifetime’s ambition of winning one of the sport’s four great prizes.
The road has been a long and arduous one. From the moment he made his Wimbledon debut as an 18-year-old ranked No 312 in the world, and beat Radek Stepanek, the world No 13, he was talked of as a man who might one day emulate Fred Perry, who in 1936 had been the last British man to win Wimbledon and the last to wear any Grand Slam singles crown.
In his early years, Murray regularly suffered from cramp and troublesome injuries but, once he had stopped growing, he worked on his strength. The wiry teenager has become a magnificent athlete thanks to hours on the track and in the gym. His dedication put to shame the efforts of some of his British predecessors and has helped to inspire the country’s most promising group of teenagers for several generations. Nor has he been afraid to make ruthless decisions, changing coaches and management companies when he felt the time was right.
Murray won his first senior title at 18, broke into the world’s top 10 at 20 and reached his first Grand Slam final at 21. Three more finals followed, but each time Murray lost. The Scot feels privileged to be playing in a golden era for tennis, but competing against Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the boyhood friend and rival he beat in New York on Monday night, has not been easy. Some even questioned his right to be regarded as part of the sport’s “Fab Four”, but his triumph at this summer’s Olympics changed perceptions.
More importantly, winning gold gave Murray the confidence to make his Grand Slam breakthrough. With Federer reaching veteran status and Nadal increasingly troubled by injuries, it could be the first of many. He has already set his sights on his next goal, to become world No 1.
Although he has long been recognised as Britain’s best tennis player for three-quarters of a century, it has taken years for Murray to win over the public. A throwaway joke about supporting England’s opponents at the 2006 World Cup led to a totally unjustified public view that he hated the English.
Middle England, in particular, did not like the unshaven Murray’s scowling and bad language on court. Finally, however, his achievement in becoming Britain’s first Wimbledon finalist for 74 years this summer and his evident pride in representing his country at the Olympics changed all that.
Despite appearances, Murray is naturally shy and impeccably polite away from the court. After one match here last week, he went out of his way to shake hands with Bud Collins, a veteran American broadcaster and journalist who was passing by in a wheelchair.
He has never appeared comfortable with celebrity status and treasures his privacy with Kim Sears, the long-term girlfriend with whom he shares a home in Surrey. After his victory on Monday night, his post-match press conference ended with an oft-repeated question about marriage. “I don’t have any plans for it just now,” the Scot said with a smile.
New York woke up yesterday to breakfast programmes in which a smiling and clean-shaven Andy Murray talked eloquently about how he had finally achieved his goal. By the time he makes his return to Britain today, his status as a true national sporting hero will surely no longer be in doubt.
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