Murray: the new Perry?
The Scot has what it takes to finally break one of the great hoodoos of British sport
Sunday 08 July 2012
This is the fourth year running that I have prepared a Wimbledon men's final preview comparing Andy Murray and Fred Perry. In each of the past three years my cue to start composing was when Murray reached the semi-finals – and each time the article was dropped after he lost in the last four. Now tempting fate has paid off with Murray punishing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's mean-spirited effort to scupper my early preparation a fourth time with that fabulous win on Friday. At last the Scot really does stand on the very edge of ending what is arguably British sport's sorriest refrain: "Not since Fred Perry in 1936…"
A comparison with Perry is a natural and informative response to Murray's feat of becoming the first Briton since Bunny Austin in 1938 to reach the Wimbledon men's final. In considering whether the Scot can emulate Perry and become Wimbledon champion, this comparison can be broken down into three parts: the differences between the two men; the overlaps; and, most relevant to my belief that he really can win the title, the one-time difference that Murray has converted into an overlap.
The differences start with their backgrounds. Neither came from the posh end of the social spectrum but Murray cannot claim to be the working-class hero Perry was. Perry's parents, Sam and Hannah, met as shop-floor workers in a Stockport cotton mill and Fred was born in a terraced house in a poor area nearby. Only later did Sam's rise up the co-operative movement bring the family south to Ealing, where they lived in a smart middle-class enclave.
Murray's parents, Willie and Judy, were respectively, at the time of Andy's birth, owner of a small business and a tennis coach who wrote about the game for a Scottish newspaper. They lived comfortably off in Dunblane, the picturesque town whose image was to be horribly besmirched by the 1996 shootings at the school where Andy was a pupil.
Their backgrounds fed into the next major difference between them. Perry's circumstances meant he was introduced to tennis relatively late, certainly far later than Murray. Perry was 15 before he took tennis seriously. Since the move to Ealing he had played occasionally but the revelatory moment came on a family holiday to Eastbourne. Straying from the seaside, he happened upon tennis being played at Devonshire Park. He was entranced. The whole scene – players in crisp, white clothing, expensive cars parked near the courts and the tennis itself – appealed to his aspirational nature. But still table tennis detained him until he won the 1929 World Championship in Budapest aged 19.
By the time Murray was 15, he had already appeared on the radar of international agents on the look-out for future stars. He won an Orange Bowl singles title in Florida and was a regular on the International Tennis Federation's junior circuit.
Socially, too, Perry and Murray bear little in the way of similarities. Perry was one of life's natural mixers, a ladies' man compared to the lady's man Murray, who has Kim Sears constantly at his side. Perry's romantic adventures were legion: four wives, numerous Hollywood stars as escorts and a descent down knotted sheets to join a female guest in a Boston hotel. "I shiver when I think of that climb," he said.
The two screamingly obvious overlaps are talent and the desire to squeeze the last drop from it. Both men not only understood from a young age the importance of physical conditioning to maximise their special ability but also did not flinch from engaging in it unsparingly.
Perry was one of the first tennis players to take fitness seriously. The public schoolboys who dominated the game when he started considered it infra dig to exercise away from tennis. Perry was unrepentant that he thought differently. "Tennis has always been a bit of an intellectual exercise," he said. "But I want to make it a physical test, too." He built up his basic fitness by training with the Arsenal football team.
Murray has the same attitude, evidenced by the fact his entourage in the VIP box on Centre Court this past fortnight has included not one but two fitness trainers and a physio.
This concentration on physical preparation makes a potent combination when coupled with the sort of talent Perry and Murray brought with them into the world. Very early on, Perry's aptitude for striking a ball was a feature of home life: the kitchen table was co-opted as a surface off which he would strike a table tennis ball against the wall, and in the garden the side of the house was used for learning to volley, the price of a mishit being a broken pane in an adjacent greenhouse.
Murray paraded his early talent not only in how well he played but with his reading of the game. Judy Murray tells the story of taking him to watch a tournament when he was a small boy. She was amazed that rather than be excited he produced a carefully argued critique of the mistakes made by one of the players.
Finally, then, the one-time difference that is now an overlap and is the reason why Murray has a real chance of winning today.
Perry knew all along the strength around which to build his game. It was a very distinctive forehand, a legacy of his table tennis, the ball taken far earlier than any other player could manage and snapped back at great speed. "Everything I did was built on the fact that sooner or later my opponents had to hit the ball short on my forehand side," Perry said. "That was the end of the point as far as I was concerned."
Murray took the virtue of having a more varied game than Perry – a game that stands out today among the baseline automatons (and, yes, these include Djokovic and Nadal) – and turned it into a vice. He has been indecisive, never quite knowing when to switch from counterattack to attack; when to change the pace of a rally by using his priceless ability to generate pace off a slow ball; when to show he is one of the few players who can play close to the net.
Under his latest coach, Ivan Lendl, Murray seems to have found himself as a player. Lendl's undemonstrative presence – something he says he has perfected while tutoring and watching his golf-playing daughters – has apparently played its part, suiting Murray far better than Brad Gilbert's hyperactive mentoring. He has finally worked out a coherent approach, rather than one that was constantly subverted by the conflict between his game's disparate parts.
The important thing is that like the Wimbledon champion of 1934-36 Murray has finally fixed on a way of playing that he seems comfortable with. At 25, he is the same age as Perry was when he first won the title.
Jon Henderson is the author of 'The Last Champion – The Life of Fred Perry' (Yellow Jersey, £8.99)
Fred Perry's guide to winning
Fred said: 'Train by playing grinding three-set matches.'
Murray's hitting partner is Dan Vallverdu, a member of Team Murray, a close-knit group with whom he travels.
Fred said: 'It affects eye focus. I used a friend as chauffeur.'
Murray is chauffeured from his Surrey home each day.
Fred said: 'Shaking hands made me lose the feeling in my fingers.'
Murray is friendly with his fans and is unlikely to refuse a handshake.
Fred said: 'Watching a match before going on court is always distracting.'
Murray will watch previous matches against Roger Federer.
Fred said: 'If you need a massage you are already clapped out.'
Murray even had one mid-match against Marcos Baghdatis.
Anyone for golf?
Fred said: 'I relaxed before matches by pottering round a putting green.'
Murray prefers walking his dogs.
Fred said: 'I got hotel staff at the Savoy to tell me what my opponent ate and how he slept.'
Murray probably knows everything there is to know about Federer.
Friends in high places
Fred said: 'I doffed my cap when I met their majesties [King George V and Queen Mary].'
Murray has keen fans in the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and rumour has it the Queen will be in the royal box today.
Cucumbers are cool
Fred said: 'The best way to eat a cucumber is peel it, pour vinegar, salt and pepper over it, and throw it out a window.'
Murray's diet is rich in sushi, steak and greens, and he is teetotal.
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