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28 November 2016

Andy Murray’s grumpy anti-genius has fuelled his rise to the top

His monstrous work ethic and ability to out-think his opponents has helped him grab the world number one slot.  

By Daniel harris

The best sportsmen, goes the cliché, have so much time they make things look so easy. Not Andy Murray. Andy Murray is always in a hurry and he makes things look precisely as hard as they are — his anti-genius confirms his genius.

Of course, Murray is still a spectacular athlete, perhaps the fastest and fittest on the tour. But he is not like Roger Federer, whose feet are made of hovercraft. Nor is he like Rafael Nadal, who wrestles crocodiles in the off-season, and he is not like Novak Djokovic — a dietary miracle formed of elastic pipe-cleaners.

Yet he has found a way to compete with all three, seeking not to outgun but to out-think. And it has always been this way. At the age of six, he became the youngest player ever to win a match in a Scottish ranking tournament, the local paper was moved to note his “remarkable tactical awareness” and now, from the comfort of an armchair, it remains difficult to predict where he’s going to hit the ball. No one apprehends the game more astutely or more profoundly, and no one discomfits their opponents to such satisfying degree. Tennis against Murray is not a game but a brawl, a test of endurance, temper and tolerance. Every sportsman in every sport wants to obliterate their opponent — Murray forces his to do it to themselves, the experience of watching him at once visceral and intellectual.

Much of this, like much of all of him, comes from his mother Judy. From the very start, she refrained from espousing tactics and technique, focusing on problem solving instead. So Murray and his brother Jamie would complete drills in which their opponent could play into the whole court but they were allowed just a half or a third, while still being expected to win.

By virtue of his childhood, Murray honed the spirit and aggression that has sustained him through his career — even if it has not always been appreciated. Aged 18, he somewhat misguidedly informed an umpire that he was a “fucking c**t”, and even though in his early career the object of his ire was more commonly himself, this nonetheless contravened the stiff upper lip morality that has so elevated British masculinity. But his principal problem was not being potentially misunderstood, it was that he wasn’t quite good enough. Essentially, if you’re not going to win, it is only polite to be genial, like Frank Bruno, or refined like Tim Henman — the duty is to fellate the egos of needy, po-faced miseries whose idea of fun is buying right-wing tabloids and voting to leave the European Union. Murray, though, pandered to no one, sometimes sullen, always real, and entirely unarsed to satisfy a slavering agglomerate of clowns he didn’t know and who didn’t know him.

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At 19, Murray was asked who he was supporting in the 2006 World Cup and naturally, being a Scot, wittily answered with “whoever England are playing against”. But this was ill-received by people too dense to get the joke and too dishonest to admit that were they him, they’d have felt likewise. No longer able to co-opt him for the nationalist cause, the English crowds deemed themselves spurned and took to bashing him at Wimbledon instead.

Murray being Murray, he simply got on with things, and thanks to a monstrous work ethic, improved himself significantly. He stopped losing big games to inferior players when their best day coincided with his worst, and in 2008 reached his first major final, only to be walloped by Federer.

It took him two years to repeat the feat – he was thrashed by Federer again – and the next time  by Djokovic. So he appointed as his coach the only man in tennis less compromising than he, and under Ivan Lendl’s tutelage became the first British man to reach the Wimbledon final since 1938, whereupon he lost to Federer again.

Naturally, it was not until afterwards that he fully won the crowd over, by crying through his interview. At last, the Great British PublicTM had what they wanted, what they needed and what they thought they deserved — someone who made them feel good about themselves. Murray might never win a slam, but he was moved by them and they were moved by him — God Save the Queen.

That summer, Murray won gold at the London Olympics and then took his first Grand Slam title at the US Open — the following year he won Wimbledon. Suddenly, no one was mithered what kind of bloke he was, which was exactly the same kind of bloke he always was — the kind of bloke who, when Lendl stepped down, could replace him with Amélie Mauresmo and not be intimidated by what people might say, on account of not giving a shit what people might say.

But despite that, and despite all his success, he is no big shot. He can still be sullen, yes, but that is a quality he shares with seven billion or so others — the majority of whom are not preoccupied with a brutal, lonely sport whose standards have never been higher.

It is true that he drives a posh car, but it is also true that it is a posh car full of coffee cups, crisp packets and chocolate wrappers. Simply, he likes tennis, he likes boxing, he likes football, he likes Playstation, he likes dogs, and he likes people he likes – and he likes being the best in the world at what he does, which he now is. It’s still not enough for some people, but they should know this: it says a lot more about them than it does about him.


Daniel Harris is a writer. He can be found on Twitter @DanielHarris


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