The teams that represent tennis clubs in the leagues dotted around Britain are often a mixture of youth and experience. There are usually a fair number of youngsters involved, but many give up the sport in their twenties as their careers and family lives become all-consuming. By the time they reach their forties and fifties, however, they often return to the sport of their youth.
It is not uncommon, therefore, to find an unlikely mix of ages in a club team, but 17 years ago one of the doubles pairings in the Dunblane Sports Club's line-up to play in Scotland's Central District Tennis League was unusual to say the least. The older partner was John Clark, a highly respected architect in his fifties. Playing alongside him was an eight-year-old called Andy Murray, who had already had three years' experience of playing in tournaments.
Before long it was the younger member of the team who was dishing out the advice. "You're standing a bit close to the net," Murray told his partner. "You should stand back a bit as you might get lobbed if I decide to serve and volley."
Seventeen years on, the once-precocious schoolboy is a 25-year-old on the brink of history. Murray will be the first British man for 74 years to play in a Wimbledon singles final this afternoon. If he beats Roger Federer, by common consent the greatest player of all time, he will become the first home male singles champion since Fred Perry in 1936.
Given that Judy Murray won 64 junior and senior tennis titles in Scotland, it was only to be expected that her two sons would have rackets thrust into their hands at an early age, particularly as the courts at Dunblane Sports Club were only 200 yards from the family home.
What was surprising was that one of them initially showed almost no sign of any ability whatsoever. Jamie, the elder brother by 15 months, took to the game immediately, but mother Judy would spend hour after hour throwing balls for Andy to hit. Not many of them made contact.
Nevertheless, there was another aspect to Andy's sporting character that was to become key to his future. Andy hated to lose at anything, whether it was tennis, football, Monopoly or dominoes. If he did lose he would storm off in an enormous huff, though Jamie would sometimes let him win to save everyone's sanity.
One of the reasons that Murray loves his sport is that he was never pressured into it. Judy ferried her boys to and from tournaments and practice sessions, but, like his father, Willie, never made them do things they did not want to.
It helped, too, that the boys came from a sporting background. Their grandfather played for Hibernian and a great-grandfather represented Northumberland at athletics, cricket and tennis. Andy was a good footballer and at 13 was offered a place in one of Rangers' feeder academies, which he declined.
For the past 16 years the Murrays' home town has been synonymous with the name of 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton, who on a March morning in 1996 walked into the gymnasium at Dunblane Primary School armed with two semi-automatic pistols and two revolvers. He killed 16 children and a teacher.
Andy and Jamie were pupils. They knew Hamilton, who ran a boys' club at the school and was once given a lift by their mother. Andy, who remembers being hurried with other children into another classroom on the day of the massacre, has never been comfortable talking about it in public.
Judy and Willie Murray separated when Andy was 10, but he had a happy childhood. He had talent as a footballer, but it was at tennis that he truly shone. By the age of 15, however, he had reached the stage where he knew he had to move on.
At the 2002 European Under-16 team championships in Andorra, when a Spanish team containing a promising youngster named Rafael Nadal beat Murray's Britain in the final, a conversation between the two boys prompted a defining moment in the Scot's career. Nadal told a wide-eyed Murray about his life back in Mallorca, where he trained in the sun and practised with Carlos Moya, one of the world's top players.
Murray had never had the chance to hit with Tim Henman, one of his own boyhood heroes, and practised – when the Scottish weather relented or when he could play indoors – with his brother, his mother and a few county-level players. When he returned home Murray told his mother: "Rafa's out in the sun all day. He hardly goes to school and he's playing four and a half hours a day. I'm playing four and a half hours a week. It's not enough."
Andy and his mother visited the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona. He played a match against Emilio Sanchez, a former top 10 player and one of the academy's founders, and beat him 6-3, 6-1. The whole atmosphere about the place was a total contrast to the training centres he had visited in Britain, where he felt most players were spoilt, lazy and lacking in ambition. Within weeks he had moved into the academy.
Murray's breakthrough as a junior came when he won the 2004 US Open boys' title at 17. He made his debut on the senior tour the following spring. Within two months he was beating Radek Stepanek, the world No 13, at Wimbledon. He led David Nalbandian, the 2002 runner-up, by two sets to love on Centre Court before falling victim to cramp. By the end of the year he had played in his first final, losing to Roger Federer in Bangkok, and beaten Henman in Basle.
In the spring of 2006, Murray won his first title in San Jose. By August, he had beaten Federer for the first time and reached the world's top 20. By the following summer, he was in the top 10. In 2008, he won his first title in the Masters Series – the nine tournaments which are the next level down from the four Grand Slam events – and went on to reach his first Grand Slam final at the US Open. Federer proved too strong, but Murray had proved that he could live with the very best on the biggest stages.
He reached his second Grand Slam final at the 2010 Australian Open and Federer was again on the other side of the net. Murray had regularly got the better of the Swiss and expected to beat him after playing the best tennis of his life in the build-up, but lost after three tight sets. It was an emotional defeat. "I can cry like Roger. It's just a shame I can't play like him," Murray said at the presentation ceremony.
A third Grand Slam final followed in Melbourne last year, but once again Murray fell short, this time against Novak Djokovic, a contemporary whose career until that point had run on largely parallel lines to the Scot's. While Djokovic went on to become world No 1, Murray kept climbing every mountain before falling just short of the peak – until this Wimbledon.
The appointment of Ivan Lendl, eight times a Grand Slam champion and one of the most dedicated players ever to wield a racket, as coach at the start of this year has been a major factor in Murray's recent progress.
The Scot has never been afraid to make hard decisions about his coaches. Having quickly parted company with his first senior coach, Pato Alvarez, Murray teamed up with Mark Petchey, a former player and now a TV commentator, only to ditch him within a year. Brad Gilbert, who had worked with Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, succeeded Petchey and took Murray to new heights, but the quietly spoken Scot found the fast-talking American hard work and within 18 months Gilbert had gone. Miles Maclagan, a fellow Scot, and Alex Corretja, a Spaniard, replaced him, but both had fallen by the wayside by last year.
Murray has also gone his own way with his commercial interests. He ditched Octagon, one of the major international management companies, in favour of Patricio Apey's smaller Ace Group, before signing with Simon Fuller's 19 Entertainment, which also represents David Beckham and the Spice Girls.
Occasionally making himself unavailable for Britain's Davis Cup matches has not always met with approval, but he is brave enough to make those decisions and defend them. When he had the rare chance to play in the Davis Cup's elite World Group in Argentina, he withdrew from the British squad – to the anger of his brother, who was also in the team – because he felt the switch to playing on clay might jeopardise his chances in hard-court tournaments.
Being happy off the court is crucial to Murray. Not always confident with strangers, he surrounds himself both on tour and at home with friends and those he trusts. He lives in Surrey with his long-time girlfriend, Kim Sears, who, as the daughter of Nigel Sears, the former head coach of women's tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, understands the pressures of a tennis player.
Murray is teetotal and not particularly a party animal, except when with those he knows and trusts. He can look uncomfortable in unfamiliar company, is not a natural celebrity and would no doubt prefer to have a quiet life away from the court. There will be fat chance of that if he wins on Centre Court this afternoon.
Six winning omens
1. 2010 and 2011 Australian Opens He was sporting varying degrees of stubble. Fingers crossed he has a good razor.
2. The Stetson-wearing steward says so Wimbledon steward David Spearing has long predicted 2012 will be Murray's year.
3. It's just like 1977 The last Briton to win a Wimbledon singles title was Virginia Wade – in 1977, the Queen's Silver Jubilee year; this year is her Diamond Jubilee. Enough said.
4. He hasn't won an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament this year His previous Grand-Slam final defeats came in years in which he won one of these tournaments.
5. Spain are European football champions The one time Roger Federer lost a Wimbledon final, Spain had just won Euro 2008.
6. And it's the Olympics! The last British men's Wimbledon singles champion was Fred Perry in 1936, the year of the Berlin Olympics.
The only way is up
Our experts contemplate what Andy Murray might be thinking as he performs his now-trademark "fingers to the sky" gesture:
"Where did Sooty and Sweep go?"
"If it's good enough for Frank Lampard …"
"How does that 'YMCA' dance go again?"
"I'm an alien. Did you watch it last night?"
"My coach told me points win tennis matches"
"The way to Scotland? That's easy"
"'Cause if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it"
"This little piggy went to market …"
"Is it a bird, is it a plane, oh … it's a plane. Quiet please"
"That one's for my fans in Murray Point, Canada"
"After that Jubilee Concert performance, let's all thank the roof for saving us from Cliff"
"Om shanti om"
"Have I made my point yet"
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