Dominic Lawson: A true champion won't accept defeat

There was something in Murray's demeanour. He moved like a loser. He winced with an impression of pain
Click to follow

Like many other news junkies, I turned on the television on Sunday morning for my regular fix, only to find that The Andrew Marr Show had been displaced from BBC1. Instead, it was the Andy Murray show – and the polar opposite. While Marr is relentlessly upbeat and smiley, Murray conformed much more than his fellow Caledonian ever does to PG Wodehouse's definition of a Scotsman with a grievance: "never difficult to distinguish from a ray of sunshine".

You might say that Murray had good reason for feeling grieved: he was being demolished by the Serbian, Novak Djokovic, and this was the third time that the great hope of British tennis had lost in a Grand Slam final without taking a single set. Cue national wailing and gnashing of teeth.

It is one of the characteristics of our sporting press – at least at the more demotic end of the market – to build up the hopes of great triumphs and then to switch abruptly to despair when the nominated Brit fails to beat the best in the world. I remember when my friend Nigel Short won the right to contest a world chess championship match against Garry Kasparov in 1993, and then lost heavily; he was then written off as just a loser. Yet no Briton had ever managed to get so far in the world chess championships – Short had eliminated even the former world champion Anatoly Karpov – and his losing score to Kasparov was exactly in line with their pre-match rankings. Similarly, Djokovic is ranked No 3 in the world, compared with Murray's fifth place. Few outside the UK would have anticipated a victory for the Scot.

Yet there was something in Murray's demeanour which exasperated his supporters and struck even this ignorant onlooker before I switched off the set. He moved like a loser, long before the final ball was struck. He winced with an almost theatrical impression of pain when struck a glancing blow on the chest by one of Djokovic's volleys. Occasionally, he would demonstrate a limp, in a way which seemed designed to express the sentiment "Poor me!". All this can only have been a great encouragement to his opponent, who would have realised that he was not merely winning on the court, but in the mental war as well.

Martina Navratilova has frequently said that "tennis is like chess" and so I feel justified in producing further analogies with that purely cerebral form of sporting conflict. Bobby Fischer eventually took the world championship from Boris Spassky in 1972, but for years he had found the Russian unbeatable. He gave as one of his reasons that "Spassky always has exactly the same expression on his face, whether he is winning or losing". This greatly disconcerted the American genius, who was used to seeing opponents visibly quail under the force of his attacks; but with Spassky there was nothing for Fischer to feed off, to boost his own confidence.

Some of the very greatest tennis champions have had exactly the same disconcerting inscrutability – Bjorn Borg springs to mind – and the good news for Murray is that this is something which can be developed: Borg was much more expressive as a teenager but learned to keep his emotions (and therefore vulnerability) hidden from the opponent.

It is one thing to hide psychological frailty: it is quite another to eliminate it. Perhaps Murray will always be incapable of that. If so, he can never be a true champion. That sounds tough, but it is the essential truth about sport at the supreme level. The great champions have reserves of self-belief that those not so endowed (the rest of us) find very hard even to comprehend. This is something quite different from technical ability; and there is no reason why the two should go hand in hand. It explains why some of the most naturally gifted sportsmen never fulfil the potential which everyone else sees in them.

A case in point is the US-based Australian golfer Greg Norman. He was for many years the highest-ranked golfer in the world, but never won a major championship in his adopted country. At the crucial stage, something would always seem to go wrong, most notably in the 1996 US Masters when he led on the final morning by six strokes, but collapsed to the challenge of Britain's Nick Faldo. Norman tended to put these constant setbacks down to "bad luck"; indeed, he turned to his caddy, Bruce Edwards, while playing the penultimate hole of the 1996 Masters and said: "I guess it's better to be lucky than good." Edwards later recorded: "I was stunned ... I turned to Greg and I said: 'I just want to caddie for someone who has heart'." Ouch.

It can't have been pure joy to caddie for Faldo, either. In Faldo's case, the problems would have been caused by his personal insensitivity (to put it no stronger). Yet the true champions, partly because of their extraordinary self-belief and will to victory, are more often than not monstrously selfish, putting absolutely everything, including family and lovers, a very distant second to their sporting ambition. After his loss to Djokovic, Murray was quoted as saying: "I just want to be normal again." Sorry, but if you want to be the best in the world, you have to say goodbye to normal.

I have known only one person who was the best in the world at anything competitive (and that for over 15 years): this was Garry Kasparov. I first met him as a teenager in 1983 when I helped to organise a world chess championship semi-final in London. He was quite unlike anyone I have met before or since – and it didn't take any understanding of the rules of chess to appreciate his exceptionality. Waves of mental energy and, yes, aggression, emanated from his body in a way that intimidated everyone in his presence.

He was the immovable object as well as the irresistible force. The following year, he challenged the previously invincible Anatoly Karpov, the victory going to the first to win six games. By the ninth game, Karpov was already leading by four wins to nil. Written off by everyone, Kasparov dug in, drawing game after game. After 17 consecutive draws (a record) he lost again. Now he was five-nil down. Surely he had gone? Not a bit of it. Eventually, after over five months – five months! – of non-stop mental combat, it was Karpov who suffered a physical collapse and the match was abandoned.

There was something almost inhuman in Kasparov's refusal to yield as that Russian winter of 1984 dragged on; I had the impression that he would rather have died of exhaustion than lose this match. In physical sports, the feeling of exhaustion must be much more vivid and powerful; yet for the true champions the prospective pain of losing will feel so much more agonising than the merely physical pain of pushing the body to its limits and beyond, that they will never even consider the possibility of acknowledging the superiority of their opponent.

In that sense, the great champions must be irrational: at times they must simply refuse to accept the burden of probability. The problem for Andy Murray on Sunday was not that he was beaten. It was that he seemed to accept that he was beaten long before the umpire declared the last ball out.