Howard Jacobson: Murray let us think the unthinkable – where does that leave us now?

It's hard to think of any other sport where the relationship between player and fan is so close

Share
Related Topics

What with one thing and another – the euro, the Jubilee, the weather – the country has had a fidgety year of it. But this weekend we have been a bag of nerves. The moment Murray made it through the semis you could feel the national temperature rise. Seats for the final were said to be changing hands for sums approaching a junior banker's bonus. People were catching trains from all over Britain, ticket or no ticket, happy just to camp out in the vicinity of Wimbledon. Whether to witness history or heartbreak, everyone wanted to be there.

Heartbreak, of course, is the default position. Early in the third set of Murray's semi-final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, when the Frenchman suddenly found his game and Murray suddenly mislaid his, I saw the photograph in the next day's papers – the Centre Court with its heads in its hands, and the headline, "The wait goes on!"

I of little faith. But you learn to protect yourself if you've been rooting all your adult life for the nearly men of post-war British tennis –Taylor, Cox, Mottram, Lloyd, Henman, and dozens more the heart has now forgotten. Andrew Murray looked the likeliest of them from the start: the British tennis player with the least charm and the biggest shots, but also, infuriatingly, the British tennis player with the greatest reluctance to produce them. Like a Gulliver in chains he looks when the pat-a-cake tremors seize him, as though encumbered not just by his own power but by the responsibility it brings. Because, at this level of the game, you aren't just hitting for yourself. England expects, as he knows too well. As a Scot the irony isn't lost on him.

His mother expects as well. But now's not the time to put his game on the psychiatrist's couch. Let's just say we all expect. I've been swearing at Murray from my armchair for years. As a lowly county table-tennis player with a backhand that should have made history, I too resorted to pat-a-cake when the chips were down. I understand the play-safe mentality. But the nation was never waiting for me to hit a screamer down the line. My passivity was my own affair, whereas when Murray goes into his shell he takes the rest of us with him. It's precisely because we understand the play-safe mentality that we heroise sportsmen. We need them to take us where we lack the courage to go. Lucky Spaniards, lucky Swiss, lucky Serbs, not having to relive their individual and national nervous breakdowns every time they watch a tennis match.

You get to know the inside of a tennis player's head if you follow his career long enough on television. It's hard to think of any other sport where the relationship between player and spectator is so close. For a while we knew Henman better than we knew ourselves. And because he seemed as wedded to tribulation as we are, our relations with him grew unhealthy. In the end, whatever our class, we saw that Henman was never going to win Wimbledon precisely because Wimbledon was his emotional heartland. Call it Sevenoaks Syndrome, a Home Counties curse that Murray, who was born in Glasgow and grew up in Dunblane, has seemed the man to lift. Surly and truculent, locked away inside himself, unwilling to smile or even look at us, here at last is a cussed player our tennis has lacked for half a century. Yes, he's less easy to love, but more likely, for that very reason, to win.

But it's hard to let the love thing go. I felt robbed at the end of the match against Tsonga. Some farcical line-calling on the final point was partly to blame, but it was Murray himself who shut us out. He shed a gritty Glaswegian tear, just about, while Tsonga beguiled us with his dazzling loser's smile. As though we don't already know what it's like to lose. So why wasn't Murray showing us what it's like to win? Where was he? Thinking of Sunday, no doubt. Imagining emulating Fred Perry now that he'd emulated Bunny Austin. Good for him. He's a professional tennis player not our boyfriend.

Like the rest of the country I slept fitfully all weekend, nonetheless, dreading a suicidal resort to pat-a-cake. You can't play it soft against Federer. And, wonder of wonders, Murray doesn't. He breaks Federer with big, deep, nerveless hitting, and though Federer breaks back, threading balls through needles, Murray breaks again and takes the set. Is the unthinkable to be thought?

For all but the final two points of the second set we go on thinking it, until Federer, who has so far looked the more jittery, steals the set with elegant brilliance from under Murray's nose. The Centre Court has its head in its hands. This is the price one pays for daring to believe. And now the weasel, perennial loser's thought creeps into one's mind: at least Murray has acquitted himself well and won a set in a grand slam final at last.

The rain comes down, the roof goes up, and because this, the commentators explain, suits Federer, our spirits sink. I am beginning to ascribe my own faintness of heart to Murray: if I can't see a way of winning this, how can he? Unless it's precisely our faintness of heart that Murray has to combat. The match slides inexorably away from him anyway. The rain stops, a rainbow arcs over London, but there will be no miracle. Federer wins.

But wait: there is a miracle. Murray cries his heart out on court, and now we love him after all.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Education Editor: This shocking abuse of teachers should be taken seriously

Richard Garner
Brand loyalty: businessmen Stuart Rose (pictured with David Cameron at the Conservative conference in 2010) was among the signatories  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?