Who will you cheer for if Andy Murray meets Roger Federer at Wimbledon? It’s not a straightforward question, at least not for the English. The loveliness of Rodge and the awkwardness of Andy — however British — makes for a difficult and revealing choice.
Different if you happen to be Scottish. I remember a conversation in the gents at Melbourne in 2010. Two Scots, companionably pissing side by side, were loudly discussing the final of the Australian Open just completed. An Englishwoman alongside them in the stands had been cheering Federer, the straight-sets winner, rather than Murray. ‘She was everything I was brought up to hate.’
But Murray was never an inevitable cheer-target for the English. There’s always been something difficult about him. Even during his early appearances as a boy with barbed-wire hair, the problem wasn’t that he was a teenager or that he was Scottish. These were just symptoms. The real problem was Murray himself: uncompromising, challenging and indigestible.
Right at the start he turned his back on the Lawn Tennis Association and a conventional tennis apprenticeship. Just not challenging enough. So at the age of 14, he took himself off to Spain to learn how to play tennis and how to rely on himself. If all it takes to improve is work and pain and loneliness and deprivation, then you take it, don’t you?
One of the most memorable things he did in his early appearances on the senior tour was to vomit on court. It was a message for us all: the boy before us won’t compromise — not in pursuit of the great prizes and not in anything else either. He’ll give the lot. More than you’re actually comfortable with.
I liked that. I also liked his unvarnished press conference persona. Lord, you can get weary of these events. Tiger Woods was undisputed master of the art of saying nothing whatsoever in the greatest possible number of words. But Murray seemed to have skipped media training. In between the grunts and bagpipe noises, he’s always been remarkably, unflinchingly honest — about injury, about his chances, about his state of mind, about tennis. The routine hypocrisies of sport were beyond him. Not everyone liked that. There was a rare outbreak of charm in the early part of the Murray story when he won his first tournament at the age of 18, in San José. In victory he was seen to kiss an uncommonly pretty girl. She was English, her name was Kim Sears; they’d been off together on a teenage adventure. Reader, he married her.
Now here’s some serious advice: never make jokes. Any public figure who makes a joke becomes an instant victim of the great conspiracy of the humourless. Murray was in a press conference with Tim Henman in 2006, and there was some chaffing about the World Cup and the absence of a Scotland team. So who would Murray support? He dredged up a weary piece of banter that he regrets to this day. ‘Anyone but England.’
Ha! Now there was a reason to withhold support from Murray. And it was seized avidly by many. Murray is not anti-English; he has a home in England and an English wife. But anti-Englishness wasn’t the point: it was Murray’s inability to compromise. Especially in his pursuit of the great prizes of tennis — the four grand-slam titles available each year.
And there was a baser reason for withholding support from Murray. If you cheered for Federer or for Rafael Nadal, you were more likely to be gratified by victory in the slams. Murray had the worst sense of timing in the entire history of sport: he was a very good player indeed at a time when two of the greatest ever to pick up a racket were disputing the mastery.
Then came Novak Djokovic, who showed himself in the same class — or very close —as the other two, at least for a while. Tennis was now run by a gang of four, with Murray doomed to be fourth among equals. He was the Ringo of men’s tennis.
It’s often said that the final step in sport is the hardest, for it is no longer a question of ability but of belief. Murray made that step at the London Olympic Games of 2012, when Centre Court was filled not by the traditional crowd but with punters shouting for the home team without ambiguity. Murray, cheered as never before, won the gold medal and went on to win the next grand-slam tournament in New York.
I was on Centre Court during the Wimbledon final the following year. Sometime during the second set I said to myself: ‘My God, he’s going to do it in straight sets.’ And he did. For the first time in 77 years, we had a British winner of the men’s singles at Wimbledon.
He was cheered, and gloriously — but then his opponent was Djokovic, not Federer. Has any player in history been as much loved by the Wimbledon crowd as Federer? First there was Federer the untouchable, who wielded his serenity like a whip to subjugate the rest. Then, as Nadal, then Djokovic, then finally Murray took over the no. 1 ranking, Federer refused to do a Björn Borg and walk away from a game he no longer controlled. Federer continued to delight, if more intermittently.
Even in decline he retains the ability to make an audience gasp: especially the way he seems to make his opponent an accomplice dedicated to the task of showcasing the genius of the Fed. And when he won the Australian Open this year, his first grand-slam title for five years and his 18th in all, putting him still further ahead on the all-time list, there was delight across the world.
All of which leaves us with a problem as Wimbledon begins on Monday. It’s a bit like the Norman Tebbit cricket test, except that the choice of who you cheer for doesn’t betray your origins or your degree of naturalisation. It’s more about your sporting soul.
The answer is simple: set partisanship aside. Partisanship is not essential to sport — in fact, it’s the lowest level at which sport can be appreciated. Beyond and above partisanship you find drama, and beyond drama you move on to excellence. The 21st century has been blessed with some of the finest male tennis players of all time and glory be, one of them happens to be homegrown.
So become a partisan for the nation of excellence: remembering that Murray is also from that nation.