Middle England should realise that our Andy is busy trying to win matches – not hearts
Friday 01 July 2011
They are still out there, clearly. Maybe one of them drove your cab this morning, or buttonholed you in the pub last night. With po-faced relish, they dredge up and reciprocate his notorious miscalculation before the 2006 World Cup, when he joked that he would support "anyone but England". As he takes his saltire into another semi-final, they will be rooting for "anyone but Murray".
But their numbers, surely, must be diminishing – and not merely in deference to any appeasement they might perceive in Andy Murray himself, since the days of his gawky emergence. For if Middle England has a defining role in Wimbledon, then the reverse is also true. Wimbledon is one of those shared national rituals that inflects society's sense of itself.
The conservative DNA of the All England Lawn Tennis Club is shared by many who endure the proletarian indignity of overnight queues, for scraps off the table of privilege. Their complicity, however, is not enough to prevent sedition in their own idols. It is true that elite tennis players, no less than millionaire champions of any other sport, can be immured from the winds of social change. But sport is not just a reflection of society: it refracts its development.
And tennis, remember, is all about the embattled individual. The greens and whites that define this tournament invoke some tranquil, bucolic ancestry. But generation by generation, it dependably introduces the shires to the latest model of feisty, self-reliant youth. It is not as if Murray has challenged prejudices the way John McEnroe did, when he brought his insolent genius here. Yet when nostalgics look back upon McEnroe, Connors and Borg – all chaps, by the way, in severe need of a haircut – they do so with a wistful sigh. If they still don't like the cut of Murray's jib, then they must know, deep down, that it is they who will eventually have to change.
As soon as he appeared on the scene, an irresistible contrast suggested itself between Murray and Tim Henman. Here was one of these sullen, queue-spraying snowboarders, careering past an elegant skier. It held true of their tennis, Murray supplanting the delicacy of Henman's serves and volleys with the full, violent arsenal of modern power play. More importantly, however, it feasibly extended to their general aspect and demeanour. That allowed everyone to cut a few corners in allocating a role to each – and to do them both a disservice.
The root of the word "caricature" is the Latin one for "load". And that was no less pertinent to Henman, when depicted as some kind of tennis Gatsby, than it is to Murray as some cheerless, unkempt hoody. Henman was a fine player, the most accomplished Briton for a long time; and he is clearly a likeable fellow, free of airs. There were times during his career when he might permit himself a curse on court, or sneak a fag off it. He never pretended to be anything he wasn't. All the messianic nonsense was pumped up by the media – and lapped up by the public. It was cruel, really. In the end, it meant even his greatest achievements may be represented as shortcomings.
Murray, conversely, has found himself praised with faint damns. Initially, he was maligned as grumpy, practically autistic. Fans compared the demonstrative sufferings of his mother with the restraint and dignity of the Henman family. As for that persistently adolescent beard... On what conceivable grounds does he look in the mirror, and refrain from shaving the bloody thing off? Some have even managed to discover something reprehensible in his admission of boredom with the inane, interminable Centre Court gag: "Come on, Tim!"
Now, does this witticism disclose a genuine hankering for their old darling? Does it mean: "Come back, Tim – all is forgiven?" How can it? For it is this same fatuous, vacuous voice that must itself beg the pardon of both Henman, and Murray. It is time British players were respected as human beings, not patriotic constructs that either admit or refuse sanitisation. To play in the era of Roger Federer has been doubly tough. It is hard enough trying to win tennis matches, without being expected to win hearts with grace and flair, as well. Murray's opponent today is himself perfectly capable of scowling. The only difference in Rafael Nadal – apart from a complexion made in Majorca, not Stirling – is 10 Grand Slams.
And while Murray has learnt to stifle his self-disgust, and the remonstrations with his team, perhaps a gradual rapprochement with the public is simply down to his tennis. Perhaps Middle England has begun to turn its censorious instincts upon itself. A few years ago, it might have found something mildly amusing in "Come on, Tim!" Now, it shifts unhappily in its seat. What a prick, they say to themselves. And they are not talking about Murray. With time, inevitably, they are starting to talk like him.
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