British tennis was, it is probably fair to say, a bit of a joke. It was about the old-boy network, speaking in the right way, having the right contacts, and other depressing facets of amateurism. Despite the huge annual windfall provided by Wimbledon, the British game was outflanked by other, more meritocratic nations. Not that anyone in the expensive seats seemed to care, provided that the Pimm’s flowed.
It was into this milieu that a remarkable family from the village of Dunblane in Scotland arrived in the 1990s. There was a mother, Judy, a Mary Poppins figure who adored the game of tennis, a father, Will, just as committed to his children but who preferred to remain in the background, and two young boys, who had talent aplenty, and were destined to change the future of British sport.
When we measure the achievements of Andy Murray, the younger of these two brothers by 15 months, who yesterday tearfully announced his retirement from tennis at the age of 31, we can only do so within the context from which he emerged. His was not a gilded rise to the top. He had no silver spoon. His was not a trajectory guided by a supportive governing body, but one that was hindered by the very people who should have been there to assist him.
The subculture of British tennis could not have been more antithetical to the hopes and dreams of the Murrays. They were the outsiders, travelling to tournaments in a hired minibus, valiantly driven by Judy, the upstarts seeking to drive a coach and horses through not just the youth ranks of the game but the ethos that was holding British tennis back. “We wanted to show that professionalism and work ethic and a game that embraced everyone regardless of background was what mattered,” Judy once told me. “This was about more than tennis.”
Andy Murray never wavered in his commitment to reach the top. Realising that he had to escape the clownish amateurism of the Lawn Tennis Association, he took the decision aged 15 to go to train in Spain, his parents taking out loans to enable him to do so.
It was a seminal moment, Murray imbibing lessons on technique, mobility, physiology, diet and many other things that were from a different conceptual universe from anything in the UK.
He took these lessons and built on them. When I first met him in Florida in 2007, his training methods were already ahead of the curve and he never relented in seeking coaches who could take him to the next level. Some within the British establishment called him ruthless, but others witnessed a man seeking to articulate the full extent of his talent, a Scot trying to construct a new paradigm. He was an innovator as much as a competitor.
When assessing his greatness, we should also not overlook the era into which he emerged. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are not just the three greatest male tennis players to have flicked a racket, but three of the finest athletes in any sport, from any era. These were the men who had raised the bar so vertiginously high, and stood in the way of Murray ending the jinx of British serial failure in the men’s grand-slam events. “I know it’s a tough era,” Murray once said. “But what a privilege to play against players of that stature.”
When people suggest that it is frivolous to write about sport, I often retort by pointing to the evolution of men’s tennis in the new millennium. To witness the breathtaking clashes between these titans, to watch as they vied and improved, breaking new ground, daring one another to ever greater heights, has been one of the great aesthetic experiences. Federer’s match with Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008 was one of the high points, but only one.
Djokovic took the game to an even higher level around 2011, the game now fully into the epoch of “epic tennis”, matches that felt like Tolstoy novels, enacted on grass, on hard courts, on clay, switching from New York to London, to Paris, to Melbourne, a journey not just around the world but into the meaning of human competition and the mutual exploration of greatness.
Murray, to his eternal credit, dared to break into this closed shop. Gosh, he came close so often, losing in New York, then Melbourne, then Melbourne again, then SW19. It became almost soap operatic, the tears before millions in 2012 after losing to Federer in the final at Wimbledon the accumulation of so much dashed hope, a young man naked before his countrymen, wondering if he would ever get there. Some journalists said, even then, that the final step was beyond him.
The very next day, Murray was back in training, sweating out new improvements, a tiny period in Murray’s life but a metaphor for his courage and heart. “That was the most upset I’ve ever been after losing a match,” he told me. “I was crying on the court. When I got home, I couldn’t sleep. But I went to the gym on my own the next day. I think a lot of players took a break after Wimbledon, but . . . I wanted to keep going.”
He went on to defeat Federer on the very same Centre Court in the Olympic final a few weeks later, before beating Djokovic at the US Open, going to a small courtside lavatory before the final set to give himself a pep talk in the mirror.
The greatest British sportsman? Such questions are devilishly subjective, but I would still give the nod to Bobby Charlton, a boy from working-class Northumberland who changed football. A man who survived the Munich air crash that killed many of his team-mates, leading Manchester United to glory at the European Cup, and who was the linchpin in England’s greatest sporting triumph, the 1966 World Cup. For the history, the mythology, the journey, it will probably always, for me, be Charlton.
But Murray comes so very close. He maximised his talents, he never gave up and he kept asking questions of himself even when he knew the answers would be painful. He endured the hard knocks of public opinion, and ultimately captured the hearts of most of his countrymen. Above all, he faced a subculture of amateurism, constraints that could so easily have held him back but he had the tenacity to break free.
When he puts down his racket, he will join the pantheon of great British sportsmen alongside such storied names as Jonny Wilkinson, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Roger Bannister and Bobby Moore. These were individuals who did not merely reach the pinnacle of their sports, but who authored moments of genuine cultural significance in our island history.