James Lawton: Summon the fury, Andy – and you can banish all those years of dismal British failure
Saturday 29 January 2011
Around about that time yesterday morning when it looked as if it could be at least another 75 years before a male British tennis player won a major tournament something both remarkable and encouraging happened.
Andy Murray became extremely angry. Not with the umpire or a ball girl or the inexactitudes of a line judge or the vagaries of life. But his own self.
He was indignant about the failure of his nerve and self-control at arguably the most important and pivotal moment of a career which for some years now has offered an amazing possibility. This is the powerful suggestion that it might redeem one of the most dysfunctional aspects of British sport.
Murray is supposed to be the home-grown tennis player whose essential hunger is to win things, the really big things, and put an end to all the tragicomic yearnings of Wimbledon's Centre Court and Henman Hill. He is supposed to be the player utterly detached from some of the feeblest psychology in middle England, the one who understands most clearly that the whole point is not luxurious mediocrity as reward for turning up but being, pure and simple, a winner.
For more than a teetering hour yesterday he wasn't that. Then he was.
It was as though a message burning on the lips of his stern and stoic mother and his various coaches and advisers and despairing supporters had finally arrived.
The content had, of course, for many been self-evident from the moments Rafa Nadal hobbled out of the Australian Open that offered him the chance to become only the third holder of all the Grand Slam titles at the same time – and Roger Federer provided still more evidence that he may indeed have been finally ambushed by time, the old and implacable enemy.
It was the message that Murray, at 23, is unlikely to ever get a better chance to step into the tennis shoes of Fred Perry, the last Brit to claim a major when he beat American Donald Budge for the US Open, and his eighth Grand Slam title, in 1936.
Novak Djokovic, also 23, is not exactly a push-over, we know. The Serbian has an impressively fiery streak, a superior sense of humour and three years ago lifted the title now in dispute.
However, the following year he earned criticism from Federer, no less, for quitting in his defence of the trophy, ostensibly for a combination of heat exhaustion and cramp but according to the Swiss master, who pointed out that it had happened twice before in big tournaments, also possibly because of a certain shortfall in what might be described as intestinal fortitude.
Federer may have reaped some of that harvest the other day when Djokovic dismantled him in three straight sets but then there is another source of encouragement for Murray now that he has survived the menacing resilience of world No 7 Spaniard David Ferrer, conqueror of the wounded Nadal.
Whatever else he is or isn't, Djokovic is neither Nadal nor Federer, who twice overwhelmed Murray in his two previous Grand Slam finals.
This uplifting fact is powerfully augmented by the recent playing record of the two. Djokovic, at No 3, is two places ahead of Murray in the world rankings and has a head-to-head lead of 4-3. However, Murray has emerged the winner from their last three meetings and, the suspicion must be that this is another reason to believe he can confound the bookmakers who have made Djokovic a short-priced favourite.
Most encouraging of all, though, surely is that mood that overtook Murray when he seemed on the point of surrendering a two-set lead to a Ferrer who looked hell-bent on generating an impression of inexhaustible combativeness.
It was marked by a dramatic change of body language. The beseeching looks to the heavens and the entourage all but ceased. There was, it is true, a sudden spate of errors in the fourth set which had promised to be a formal march into the final by Murray but they too gave way to a decisive burst of authority.
In the end it was the sheer quality of Murray's game that separated him from the tough and able Spaniard.
He played shots of such brilliance they would have flummoxed some of the greatest men to hold a racket and, indeed, they might have persuaded even the admirably professional, white-flannelled Perry, that he was witnessing another game devised on another planet.
A couple of cross-court backhands had some experts bemoaning all over again the fact that Murray too often keeps such a staggering weapon concealed deep in his armoury. The shot of the match, a withering forehand that left Ferrer cast in stone on the baseline, was no less than breathtaking.
These were the most luminous reminders of the central criticism that has so doggedly attached itself to his impressive journey beyond the achievements of so many generations of male British tennis players.
It is that Murray too often holds back the best of himself; that he seeks to wear down and subdue when he has the power to, well, obliterate. He plays too far within himself and thus manufactures as many problems as those created by his most talented opponents.
Some of the tennis cognoscenti say that the classic example came two Wimbledons ago when he waged a superb campaign that mocked the relatively subdued reactions of the crowd that used to swoon over the gallant Tim Henman – right up to the semi-final against the inspired American Andy Roddick.
Too often Murray yielded Roddick the net, too often he seemed to think that attrition would do.
There was an element of that in Melbourne yesterday until some of the best of Murray's game was unfurled as the pressure reached its highest. Another case of subsidence was avoided – and the reward is a third chance to burst upon British sports history.
Murray should take it this time. He doesn't owe it to the nation as much as himself for his hard work – and the full reach of an extraordinary talent.
Brady's behaviour towards Grant is enough to shame any man or woman
Sexism in football, it may be news to her, is not the issue regarding West Ham's high profile vice-chairman and Sun columnist Karren Brady.
It is the credibility and decency of football.
This is Ms Brady in her own words: "A friend rings to tell me that the BBC are running a story saying that Martin O'Neill is the new manager of West Ham. Everyone, it appears is categoric on this one : the media, the supporters and the staff. The only ones not sure, it appears, are the board.
"What I can tell you categorically is that the name Martin O'Neill was not mentioned, not once, in the board meeting we had on the previous Wednesday.
"My feelings will be nothing like as bruised as Avram Grant's. I respect him for holding his head high in such a situation."
What situation precisely you wouldn't really know, would you, from the foregoing assertion.
We do all know, of course, the operating conditions the West Ham manager faced before the critical game with Arsenal. They were dominated by the fact that the world at large, and plainly also the players and supporters of the club, had seen him for some days as the game's ultimate dead manager walking.
However, he behaved with immense dignity in all the circumstances, even throwing his scarf to some sympathetic fans in what was reasonably taken as a farewell gesture of some poignancy. Against this the coy meanderings of Brady, who at no point in her elevated capacity at the club saw fit to issue a brief denial that O'Neill had been approached, are surely an invitation to reach for the sick bucket.
Before the beleaguered Richard Keyes left office, and Brady jumped so jubilantly on his demise, he asserted that football had gone mad. Unfortunately his claim was impossible to detach from the charge of sexism, so closely linked was it with disparaging remarks about a female assistant referee and Brady.
But he was right about the madness of football. For some of us it is most sickeningly represented by the kind of conduct which we saw at Upton Park, and which surely disgraced any man – or woman – who had any part in it.
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