Middle England be damned: life at the top is a serious business at Wimbledon

 

Wimbledon

The darling of Middle
England was on Centre Court yesterday, but for once Kate Windsor was not the
focus of attention. Most of the spectators were there to see someone who is
more likely to win Wimbledon than earn that soubriquet.

Murray is the nation's best tennis player since Fred Perry and the fourth best player in the world. The degree of commitment and sacrifice to get to this level should not be underestimated. He is also a multidimensional player whose work on court can be both exhilarating and beautiful, at times touching on genius. Yet for many he is still "Dour Scot" rather than "Our Andy".

His Scottishness has something to do with this. As demands for independence have grown there has been a reaction south of the border. However, there is more to it than that and the misreported, misunderstood gag Murray made about hoping "anyone but England" would win a football match. It is also about the scowl, the stubble, the refusal to deliver one-liners to camera. Tim Henman was the son-in-law mothers dream of; Murray's image is more akin to the boyfriend fathers have nightmares about. It is as if he leaves SW19 each night on a Harley, heading for the nearest Hell's Angels chapter. None of this is fair. Away from the cameras and crowds Murray is personable and polite, but reputations are hard to shake.

Perhaps Murray should have asked advice from the Duchess of Cambridge – or even the England manager, Roy Hodgson, another attendee yesterday – but does it matter if a player smiles or not? Not much. Sponsors prefer a popular athlete but Murray has gone long beyond the stage when he plays for the financial rewards. He plays to win titles and it is a serious business.

Top-level sport usually is. A fond memory is of Jose Luis Caminero pausing before taking a corner deep into extra time in Spain's Euro 96 quarter-final against England at Wembley, to ruffle the hair of a nearby photographer and exchange a joke. "It's just a game," the gesture indicated.

This sticks in the memory because it so rare. Marcos Baghdatis, the world No 42, smiled in his third-round match with Murray but as Murray has pointed out, his rivals at the top do not wisecrack through matches.

For a long time yesterday Murray did not have much to smile about. Having missed an early chance to break he let his own serve slip. Ivan Lendl sank his chin on to his hands, expressionless. Whatever the Czech adds to Murray's game it won't be laughs. When Murray broke back he clenched a fist, glanced towards Lendl and his mother, and strode to his chair. But the tie-break was lost and Murray's look was darker than the skies.

It was Murray's resurrection from two-down in the second tie-break which changed the mood on Centre Court, which had grown so tense it felt like an agonisingly elongated penalty shoot-out. The momentum had shifted and Murray kept it to take the third set. Murray seemed freer, more expansive and less reactive, suggesting he could do with some levity in his approach. Not for Middle England, not for the media, but for his tennis.

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