Dominic Lawson: A rage to succeed, not talent, is the mark of sporting greatness

Andy Murray might come across as 'uncultured', but he has a furnace of a mind
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The Independent Online

Today Andy Murray walks on to Wimbledon's Centre Court to open his bid to become the first Briton to win the Gentlemen's Singles at the All England Club championships since Fred Perry in 1936. The difference between Murray and all the previous British contenders over the past 73 years is that his foreign rivals regard him as a truly terrifying opponent, one they would dearly wish to avoid in the draw.

Yet the 22-year-old Scot is also seen as scary even by many home supporters: he does not have the adulatory fan club enjoyed by such previous British hopes as Tim Henman and John Lloyd. This is not just because he lacks their clean-cut good looks. At the weekend, one British newspaper wrote of the "air of alienation and charmlessness that hung over" Murray and quoted an alleged "admirer" as describing him as "not a deeply cultured individual. He doesn't read books, doesn't have any other interests. He just plays tennis, and that's all that matters to him."

So Andy Murray is not the sort of person you might wish to sit next to at a dinner party. So what? Murray is not competing in the All England Charm and Personality Championships. More to the point, the monomania and tunnel vision which seems so to irritate newspaper profile writers is the very source of his greatness as a tennis player.

Further, it is this that he has in common with all those who succeed at the very highest level of professional tennis, and indeed at the apex of all other international sports. This attribute needs to be combined with a competitiveness of equally maniacal intensity: is it any wonder that such a person will howl with animalistic rage at any error, either on his own part or by an official?

Murray's behaviour has sometimes been contrasted with the cool detachment displayed by champions such as Roger Federer and, in a previous era, Bjorn Borg; yet these tennis titans were, if anything, even more turbulent in their early years. Federer was a noted racket-hurler in his youth and indeed has thrown the odd tantrum recently, now that his carapace of invincibility is cracking. Even Borg, apparently the epitome of Swedish sang-froid, admitted that "I was crazy, a madman on court. Then the club I belonged to suspended me for five months ... After that I never opened my mouth again on the tennis court."

Borg and Federer learned to suppress their inner rage – and probably Murray will do so too, although some champions, such as John McEnroe, never managed to mask their emotions. Rage is usually seen as a most unattractive manifestation of character: it is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins. Yet a rage to succeed is the most essential attribute of the champion. This is more than just hyper-competitiveness, although that is part of it: the rage to succeed means trying to be not just the best, but actually perfect – not just a winner, but unbeatable by any imaginable rival.

Outside the world of top-flight sport, this "rage to succeed" was identified by the former Hollywood film producer Larry Thompson, who now acts as an adviser to various film stars and would-be screen idols. He lists four factors behind stardom: talent, rage, team, and luck, of which the first two "come from within". Thompson tells his clients: "You can't just have ambition. You must have a RAGE to succeed. You must have a mad passion for success." He goes on to point out the obvious: that different people have these factors in different proportions, and therefore: "the more rage you have, the less talent you may need."

It is not so strange that a Hollywood talent-spotter should talk like a sportsman's trainer. Showbusiness and sport have in common that an inordinate number of young people dream of succeeding in one of these two fields and those that don't make it may well continue – with either amateur dramatics, or club sport – even after they have settled down to a "responsible" career as an accountant or schoolteacher.

Yet precisely because so many have the dream to become a sports champion, this fragile career – one bad injury and it's all over – is the most insanely competitive of all. More than that, its entire structure is designed around coming first, having beaten all opponents in eyeball to eyeball combat.

Even the most competitive City banker will be expected to lose out on a deal to a rival every now and then (and can always blame some other member of his team when this happens), yet the true tennis champion – a Federer or a Nadal – is expected to win whenever he turns up, against whomever he plays; and when he loses, in front of thousands of noisy, gawping spectators, there is absolutely nowhere to hide and no one else to blame.

It is sometimes believed that the greatest champions have a unique gift denied to ordinary mortals and that it is this which sets them apart. Perhaps there are some such people, who crop up once every hundred years or so: the Cuban chess world champion José Raúl Capablanca was one. Yet he lost his title to the Russian Alexander Alekhine, whose rage to succeed was a mightier force than Capablanca's preternatural gift for knowing how chess should be played.

After all, we humans are not, in our physiology and brain structure, very different one from another. What then can distinguish us, other than willpower and desire? Look at Andy Murray: he has only two arms and two legs, none of them of freakish dimensions. I once had dinner with John McEnroe, and there were was nothing in his appearance which suggested some special physical dynamic – but what he did have was an intensity, which had driven an ordinary body to feats of balance and endurance that more powerfully-built men could not match. The same could be said of his great rival, Jimmy Connors, who could never have been mistaken for a natural athlete.

Or take Muttiah Muralitharan, the most successful bowler in the long history of cricket, with no fewer than 770 Test wickets. Yet this is a man only 5ft 7in in height, with a congenital deformity which has the effect of shortening his arms. A week ago I went to see his team, Sri Lanka, in action. They were playing Ireland, one of the minnows of international cricket. Yet in the break between innings I noticed Muralitharan coming on to the field, whereupon he bowled practice balls, over and over again. And each ball was delivered with his customary grimace, eyes bulging with the effort of imparting huge spin.

This is a man who, you might, think, could have bamboozled the Irish on the strength of his reputation alone; yet this 37-year-old, who has delivered almost 150,000 balls in his 20-year career, was not missing a single second's opportunity to improve himself and his chances.

This is purely and simply about character – in a way, it has nothing to do with sport at all. The real strength of the greatest competitors does not lie in their muscles, but between their ears. So although Andy Murray might come across as "uncultured" and devoid of "outside interests", be sure that he has a formidable furnace of a mind. Without it, he would not be a winner.