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

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The Independent Online

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.