Finally warming to Andy Murray
Who cares if the Wimbledon champion ‘lacks personality’? He’s one of our best-ever sportsmen.
SPORTING CLICHÉ KLAXON! The wait is over. The ghost of Fred Perry vanquished. Seventy-seven years of hurt assuaged. The burden of history lifted. Britain is a nation of sporting chokers no more. We can consign all these self-loathing sporting tropes to the trope-bin of history.
Britain can now love Andy Murray unconditionally. We can cast aside all the gripes: he’s too surly, he doesn’t smile, he lacks charisma, he’s unkempt, he’s a bottler. As the late Cassandra Jardine wrote about Murray in the Telegraph in 2008: ‘He can’t help the curling lips he was born with but he could compose them into a smile more often. It would help if he looked at interviewers and said something that showed marginally more personality than one of those machines that spits out balls.’
Surely all the haters will fall silent now that we have a proper, bona fide British tennis champion? The sporting debate has now been reframed. No longer will he be asked the tired old question: ‘Will he ever win a major?’ Now the questions about Murray are more positive. ‘How many slams will he win?’ ‘Can he become world number one?’ ‘Can he win on clay?’ ‘Will he be knighted?’ However, the question no one is asking is this: ‘Why has Britain been so slow to warm to Andy Murray?’ It’s been pretty clear since 2005, when as a gangly 18-year-old he reached the third round at Wimbledon, that Andy Murray was a very special tennis player. Certainly Top 10 material. Better equipped than Tim Henman to deal with the big hitters. Potentially a grand-slam champion. Since 2010, he’s reached six grand-slam finals; more than any other British man in the open era.
And yet the British never fully embraced him. Andymonium never quite reached the shrill pitch of that weird Middle England hysteria, Henmania. There was always a strong whiff of snobbery here. Henman was the polite, clean-cut, well-spoken Oxfordshire boy who ticked all the boxes for the sport’s Home Counties constituency. Murray, by contrast, was grungy, miserable and dishevelled. And he was Scottish. Some would argue that his Scottishness counted against him. But his nationality was never a reason, in itself, to dislike him. The Krankies are Scottish and it never did them any harm. There was, of course, Murray’s notorious quote that he would support ‘anyone but England’ in the 2006 World Cup. But here’s the thing. It was ironic. A joke. Murray has a dry sense of humour that is obviously lost on his detractors.
The public acceptance of Murray has been a slow process. The key turning point came last July when he broke down in tears after losing the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer. As TV presenter Eamonn Holmes tweeted: ‘As it turns out, with that speech Andy Murray today has won more than any Wimbledon title is worth. He has won the hearts of the Country.’ Let’s try to unpick this public ambivalence. He wasn’t loved when he was scowling or cursing or throwing a strop. But he melted our hearts after he snivelled like a baby.
This says a lot about our society. It tells us that public weeping is now acceptable; that the traditional ‘stiff upper lip’ has given way to emotional incontinence. Gazza kickstarted the fad by sobbing at the World Cup in 1990. However, the death of Princess Diana, and the orgy of public mourning which it triggered, marked a seismic shift in social attitudes to public expressions of emotion and grief. Emotional restraint, once seen as a virtue, has been reinterpreted as dysfunctional and repressive. Now we’re expected to be emotionally literate.
This cultural shift was a recurring theme in The Sopranos. ‘What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type’, lamented mob boss Tony Soprano. ‘That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.’ In order to become a tennis champion, Murray had to be like Gary Cooper. He learned to keep his emotions in check. The only reason he graduated from contender to champ was that, under Ivan Lendl’s tutelage, he learned how to control his temper. Yet, perversely, he was celebrated, not for his sporting prowess, but for a rare loss of emotional self-control.
‘Never accuse Murray of being unemotional again’, tweeted Piers Morgan after that Centre Court sobfest last year. But Murray was never particularly emotionless. He expressed his emotions on the court all the time. Anger, frustration, aggression, petulance – Murray demonstrated all these emotions. But clearly these were the wrong types of emotion. What his critics wanted were the ‘hurrah’ emotions. They wanted smiles and laughter. They didn’t want Angry Murray. There’s something rather coercive about this emotionally correct demand for grinning sports stars. As the perennially grumpy Charlie Brooker wrote: ‘The people who want Murray to smile are the same ones who try to make me dance at weddings. They want the world to conspicuously enjoy itself in a manner of their choosing, and they turn vaguely sanctimonious when they encounter pockets of resistance, as though their definition of fun is the only one that matters.’
If Murray’s tears helped to humanise him, you would have thought that winning Olympic gold and the US Open would have elevated him to national-treasure status. He was the first British man to win a grand slam since Fred Perry – an astonishing achievement in the era of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. Yet Murray only came third in the public vote for 2012 BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Sure, Team GB’s success at the London Olympics had made it a golden year for British sport. However, I suspect that Murray’s perceived charisma deficit was what did for him. His sporting accomplishments were every bit as hard-won and glorious as those of Bradley Wiggins, yet the affable, wisecracking Maida Vale mod was always going to trump Murray in the personality stakes.
And that’s a curious thing when you think about it. Why should personality make one jot of difference? You don’t win any points for wit or charm. It’s not a smiling contest. Yet charisma seems to matter an awful lot to tennis fans. Pete Sampras dominated the men’s game throughout the Nineties but was widely regarded as boring. As a consequence, he was never afforded the same public adulation as the charismatic John McEnroe. There are echoes of Sampras in our coolness towards Andy Murray. Why can’t we just appreciate Murray’s technical excellence? We should marvel at his winning mentality, his court craft, his resilience and ability to overcome setbacks. But we shouldn’t expect him to crack jokes, clown around or play keepy-uppy with a tennis ball. Andy Murray’s job is to win tennis matches. That’s the only criteria against which he should be judged.
Now that Murray has finally lifted the Wimbledon curse, let’s hope the nation can finally love him for the right reasons. Not because he sobbed last year. Not because, after watching the documentary, Andy Murray: The Man Behind the Racquet, we belatedly realised that he’s a nice bloke who enjoys walking his dogs. Not because he did a sexy Mario Testino photoshoot for US Vogue. All those things are irrelevant. What matters is that he’s a winner. A sporting champion. That’s why we should cherish him.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.
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