Ace of Base

By Simon Briggs, Photo by Art Streiber August 2016 Read in PDF format N11/2016
ANDY MURRAY On the eve of the Wimbledon championships we spoke to Andy Murray about taking advice from mother, competitiveness, opponents, learning from losing and the perils of bath time with a baby. And four weeks later, we checked in with him again…

Andy Murray is standing in the middle of Thruxton Race Circuit serving tennis balls at sports cars as they zip past him in the fast lane. The stunt has been brainstormed with a viral marketing campaign in mind and bears little resemblance to the dreamily dance-like movements we will see at Wimbledon in two weeks’ time. Even so, he’s into it. A direct hit on a rear wing brings a raised fist and baredteeth grimace as if it were an ace on Centre Court. A miss has him staring up at the sky in self-admonishment or glaring accusingly at his racket. If hitting a Jaguar car moving at 70mph sounds challenging, it’s nothing compared to Murray’s dayjob: tackling the greatest tennis players ever to put away an overhead. We thought he had it tough when he faced Roger Federer – the sultan of smooth – in his first two major finals, but no. Fate had decreed that Murray’s nearexact contemporary, Novak Djokovic, was about to blossom into the ultimate tennis gladiator. The man is simply bulletproof, as he proved by winning his fourth straight major title in Paris a few weeks ago. This is where it helps to have a touch of the berserker about you. Murray may attract criticism – not without reason – for his grouchy and often foul-mouthed demeanour on the court, but he has kept training with the intensity of a triathlete despite every setback, never once complaining about these uniquely hostile conditions. Searching for positives after that French Open final and he acknowledged that, “I have been close-ish to winning all of the Slams now and unfortunately the other guys [Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal] have done it instead. But then, whenever I have won a big event I have beaten one of them, or maybe two. So maybe when I finish playing, my achievements will mean a little bit more.” Back at Thruxton,

Murray tells me, “What I like about tennis is the scoring system and the fact that you get a conclusive winner. In team sports it’s subjective who the best player is. Ronaldo and Messi aren’t competing directly against each other; only their teams are. Even in boxing, you get draws or fights where someone says this guy won, someone else says the other guy won. In tennis, it’s a lot simpler.” Perhaps Murray’s enthusiasm is a psychological ploy, the only way to deal with this unforgiving era. His résumé lists £32m in prize money and 36 titles. And then there was the magical period when he won Olympic gold, the US Open and the Wimbledon singles title in the space of 12 months. Still, at the biggest events only one of 128 men can go away unbeaten – and his name is usually Djokovic. Which may explain why, to borrow from PG Wodehouse, Murray cannot always be mistaken for a ray of sunshine. His on-court behaviour returned to the news agenda earlier his year when Amélie Mauresmo, the coach who left his camp in April, breached locker-room omertà in an interview. “Andy is complex,” Mauresmo told L’Équipe newspaper. “On the court he is the opposite of what he is in life. It can be disconcerting.” It is true. The player you see gesticulating furiously at his own coaches is almost comically distinct from the man appreciated by backroom staff at every tennis event. If tennis players are judged by their victories, it is by their defeats that we know them. Think of Pete Sampras quietly reading a letter from wife Bridgette at a change of ends in 2002 – a move that softened his robotic public image – or Björn Borg walking straight out of the US Open and the entire sport in 1981. Murray, too, has had more than his share of losing speeches to make and has become an exponent of the art. His tearful breakdown after Federer’s victory in the 2012 Wimbledon final was genuinely affecting, his voice cracking as he warned, “I’m going to try this but it’s not going to be easy.” Then, last January, came another heartfelt message after he lost the final of the Australian Open (to Djokovic) – this one directed straight down the camera lens from Melbourne to wife Kim in the final stages of pregnancy. “You’ve been a legend the last two weeks,” he said, with a quiver of the lip. “Thank you so much for all of your support. I’ll be on the next flight home.” How did people react to that moment? Murray shrugs. “It’s not like I got people coming up to me and saying ‘That was a beautiful speech’. No one outside my family has talked about that to me, so I don’t know what the wider response was. But I do know that it was a difficult time.” Happily, baby Sophia arrived on time and she is now a regular feature of touring life. “We’ve been incredibly lucky,” says Murray. “Sophia sleeps very easily, she drinks from the bottle now and I haven’t been shit on in the bath or anything.” M u r r a y ’ s o w n ch i ldho o d had i t s complications, as is usually the case with the tennis elite. Aged 10 he had to cope with the separation of his parents - a traumatic event that is rarely discussed, but may have been triggered by mother Judy’s intense commitments as Scotland’s national tennis coach. Even deeper in the memory bank – and never directly addressed in public – is the horror that unfolded at Dunblane Primary School in 1996. As the local scout leader Thomas Hamilton massacred 16 pupils and a teacher, eight-year-old Murray and his older brother, Jamie, sheltered under the headmaster’s desk. Recently, they have both expressed pride at tennis’s role in changing Dunblane’s public perception: no longer a town of victims, but the home of Wimbledon champions. Whether this darkness underlies Murray’s sporting genius is the province of amateur psychology. But he and his brother have turned out OK, to put it mildly. Jamie is ranked number two in the world in doubles, married to Colombian marketing graduate Alejandra and living in Wimbledon village. Judy visits whenever she is down south, though her work developing tennis in Scotland takes priority. Even now though, there is no more visible parental bond in British sport. “I talk to my mum all the time but more about family stuff,” Murray says. “We do talk about tennis sometimes, and I am interested in her opinion because she is very experienced, but I’ve only asked her something specific once or twice in the last eight or nine years.” So how does he begin to reel Djokovic in? Days before Wimbledon began we may have got the answer as Murray was reunited with former coach Ivan Lendl. “Ivan is the best coach I’ve ever had,” Murray tells me. “In sport you base how good someone is on results, and the results I have had with Ivan have been the best. Ivan has been through a lot of the same things that I have. He lost 11 grandslam finals, I have lost eight. With Ivan it is all about learning from mistakes and learning from losses.” Murray’s whole career is a reminder of the ferocity of modern tennis. Here is a man whose preternatural hand-eye coordination marked him out as special as soon as he could walk; whose fitness trainer reckoned he was as quick over the first step as Usain Bolt - and whose mental steel has carried him through the agonies of serving for the Wimbledon title. He maintains a backbreakingly rigorous training schedule and has the curiosity to break boundaries in his coaching team, both with the hire of Lendl (famous ex-players were not the done thing before 2012) and the decision to replace him with Mauresmo, the first woman to work with a leading male player in 25 years. Despite all these qualities, Murray has to put up with the fact that he has now gone three years without a grand slam – the level of title that, in his words, “defines how we are judged”. Even so, he remains stoical, determined and wholly lacking in self-pity. And he has also confounded the many pundits who predicted that his motivation would ebb after the conquest of Centre Court. You only have to watch him tag those speeding saloons to see that his competitive instinct burns undimmed. Four weeks after our conversation at Thruxton, I call Murray to congratulate him after a historic month by taking the Queen’s Club title and then emphatically conquering Wimbledon for a second time, beating Milos Raonic in the final in straight sets. “It’s funny but I still feel like my best tennis is ahead of me,” he admitted. “Everyone’s time comes at different stages, hopefully mine is to come.” How does this compare to winning in 2013 I wondered? “The last time it was just pure relief and I didn’t really enjoy the moment as much, whereas I’m going to make sure I enjoy this one.”





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