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11 January 2019

How Andy Murray became a quiet ally for women in sport

The awkward tennis player won over a sceptical audience without conceding to the “Sports Bloke” narrative. 

By Kelly Welles

When Andy Murray emerged from the tennis circuit and into our consciousness as an 18-year-old with untidy hair and a surly attitude, armchair tennis fans weren’t optimistic. Sure, on court the grace and control of unruly teenage limbs was impressive, but no more so to the untrained eye than any other coached tennis kid emerging onto the scene. What set him apart was his refusal to participate in the other games played by elite sports professionals. His dour expression, habit of staring into the middle distance during press conferences and refusal to participate in light-hearted merriment became newsworthy in themselves. His surliness in press conferences a tennis trope. 

Then in 2009 it emerged that, when asked who he’d be supporting in the football World Cup, he had replied: “Anyone England are playing.” He quickly explained it had been a joke, but many did not give him the benefit of the doubt. “I was only 19 or 20 at the time. I was still a kid, and I was getting things sent to my locker saying things like: ‘I hope you lose every tennis match for the rest of your life.’ That’s at Wimbledon,” he said later

Murray had more to be bitter about than the premature termination of his stand up career, though. Prior to his Wimbledon victory in 2013, the trophy had remain untouched by British male players since Fred Perry lifted it in 1936. Many tried and failed to achieved those heights in the intervening period, but it felt like Murray’s poor fortune that he happened to be competing at the same time as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were reaching their peak. 

Arguably they turned him into the player he is. Murray himself has always acknowledged his competitive instinct, instilled in him by a desperate need to beat his older brother Jamie. Drawn out by his mother Judy, who coached both her sons, Murray never complained, presumably realising that no one is unbeatable and rising to the challenge laid out by the two men. In 2012, when he lost the Australian Open semi-final to Novak Djokovic, instead of offering excuses he honoured his opponent, stating he was “proud” to have closed the gap with the world’s top players.

His humility, relentlessness and talent eventually wore down even the most vehement Murray sceptic. In 2012, he softened us up by winning a gold medal for Team GB at the London Olympics. He couldn’t quite thrust himself over the Wimbledon line that year, but his performance vs Roger Federer promised that an end that the long hunt for Fred Perry’s successor could be in sight. He finally did it in 2013 and it’s hard to remember a time when we were all that happy.

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Injury has dogged his career in the last few years, but his instinct as an outlier has, if anything, become more vociferous. Murray’s next significant deviation from the SportsBloke Narrative was to start calling out inequality in sport, before it became fashionable. Having always cited the influence of strong women in his life, Murray began to use his position to identify casual sexism in tennis. Highlights of this include admonishing John Inverdale for claiming that he (Murray) was the first person to win two Olympic gold medals (“Venus & Serena have won four each”), calling for a more even split of male and female players across the Wimbledon tournament and most recently becoming irate on Instagram when footballer Ada Hegerberg was asked to twerk onstage at the Ballon d’Or awards.

In 2014, he went public with texts he received after appointing Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. “When it first came out in the press that I may be working with a woman, I got a message from one of the players who is now coaching,” Murray told an interviewer. “He said to me, ‘I love this game that you’re playing with the press, maybe you should tell them tomorrow that you’re considering working with a dog.’ That’s the sort of stuff that was said when I was thinking about it.”

Many have called it virtue signalling. Some have criticised his tears in the press conference as he announced his impending retirement through injury. Thankfully, this sort of sniping has never much bothered him before. Andy Murray, far from being a thorn in the side of British sport that he appeared to be on arrival, could, through coaching, management and press exposure post retirement, be the catalyst for change. No one sensible can question his credentials. His message of inclusion and diversity is deeply powerful. And it’s an unfortunate truth, but a by-product of a patriarchal society is the fact that the voice of one powerful male is more compelling than a thousand females screaming the same message.

Judy should be very proud.

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