My regrets over England joke, by Andy Murray
Grand Slam winner has had to work hard for support
The partisan put-down was Andy Murray's attempt at a verbal smash. But joking that he would "support whoever England were playing against" was one shot the teenage tennis star would live to regret. He admitted last week that it had cost him the support of some English fans.
The defensive jibe, teased out of him during a joint interview with Tim Henman in 2006, turned Wimbledon crowds hostile just when the young player from Dunblane most needed their backing.
"I was only 19 or 20 at the time. I was still a kid, and I was getting things sent to my locker saying things like: 'I hope you lose every tennis match for the rest of your life'. That's at Wimbledon. Even people within the grounds at Wimbledon were saying that to me," Murray revealed.
The seriousness of the situation hit home after he overheard one tennis fan at Wimbledon describe him on the phone as "that Scottish wanker" as he walked past. "It's not nice, obviously, and I felt I hadn't done anything wrong." His comment, he said, was a response to teasing about Scotland's absence from the World Cup. What he called "unbelievable" early fan support evaporated, forcing him, he admitted, to have to "reconnect" with the British public.
But it was a long haul, with every agonising defeat serving to underline for many south of the border Murray's Scottish blood. As the Twitter joke went: "Murray is British when he wins; and Scottish when he loses."
Last week's victory in the US Open in New York, the first in a Grand Slam event for a male British tennis player for 76 years, coming on top of the Olympic gold medal for his country, will ensure Murraymania is firmly back on course next time he steps on court. It could even see the 25-year-old bag another title in three months' time: Sports Personality of the Year. William Hill slashed odds on Murray winning to 11/4 from 6/1 the previous week, although Bradley Wiggins remains the favourite.
Local fans will get their chance to pay homage to Murray today when the US Open champion takes part in a walkabout around Dunblane at midday, after arriving in an open-top bus. He will pause at his golden postbox en route to the Dunblane Tennis Club courts where he started out. The visit comes after Murray missed the victory parade for Scottish Olympians in Glasgow on Friday.
As well as rescuing him from his own English hell, victory at Flushing Meadows catapulted Murray into sport's super league, with marketing experts predicting his earnings could quadruple to £100m over his career. The win was worth $1.9m (nearly £1.2m) in prize money alone, but the real value lies in sponsorship deals. He already has a £15m five-year deal with Adidas, as well as lucrative contracts with Royal Bank of Scotland, Head racquets, Jaguar and the Swiss watchmaker Rado.
Nigel Currie, director of the sports marketing agency Brand Rapport, said yesterday: "Murray's appeal is that tennis, like golf, is genuinely global, so, if you are in the top one or two in the world, then you are a global superstar. All the really big brands that sponsor the World Cup or the Olympics, like Visa, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Nike, will be looking at him now." Mr Currie calculated that Murray's earnings off court, which are already around £7.5m a year, "could triple over the next 12 months" alone.
With the question of whether he could win a Grand Slam event finally answered, Murray will find attention shifting instead to his personal life and any plans with his long-term girlfriend, Kim Sears. The couple, who live in Surrey, have been together for seven years. But Murray is not being rushed into anything: "I have no plans to get married right now. I am still fairly young. But we'll see."
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