The Scot was initially unloved by the British tennis public but he changed perceptions simply by being himself.
There is a story Andy Murray tells from Wimbledon in 2006. He was 19, a gangly kid on his first full season on tour and had just taken over from Tim Henman as Britain’s top-ranked tennis player. He was walking through the crowd, coming back from the practice courts, when he passed a woman talking on her mobile phone. “Oh,” she said when she saw him go by, “that Scottish wanker’s just walked past.” Murray swears like a sailor himself but the insult stung so much he can still feel it. “I was like ‘what?’” he said in an interview a decade later. “This is my home tournament. Why is this happening?”
Now that everybody is talking about how much they love Murray, it is easy to forget how little a lot of them used to like him.
The spotlight was pretty unforgiving and it must have seemed as if everyone watching – the public and the press – was picking at him, or on him. They called him boring. They said he was a whinger and a hypochondriac (which seems particularly absurd now when you think of the beating he has put his body through), that he spent too much time griping about his aches and pains, that he always had someone, or something, else to blame. The last Briton to win a Wimbledon singles title, Virginia Wade, called him a “drama queen” after he had three lots of physio during a match at the French Open.
More than that, Murray just seemed too rough, rude and surly for the Wimbledon set, with their garden party airs and graces and starchy expectations about how a tennis player is supposed to behave. Middle England was a tough crowd for an ornery young Scot and his manner upset the snobs. He was always swearing on court, at himself and everyone else. “You twat,” he told his coach, Brad Gilbert, in a match in 2008. Even when he won his first grand slam title, the US Open in 2012, he cursed a blue streak while he was doing it. “Take your time, you dick”, “Fuck, man, fuck”, “My fucking legs feel like jelly”.
That attitude has served him well. It seems almost cruel now that we would have such high expectations of a kid who was doing so much of his growing up in public, who was, as his first biographer Sue Mott wrote, still trying to figure out how to master the “incontinent, competitive rage” that had driven him to get that good in the first place.
“Murray isn’t rude,” Mott wrote early on in his career. “He is preoccupied. He wants to win, with an unsettling fervour he has yet to control.”
In the summer of 2012 we saw the truth of that when Murray started crying after he lost the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer in four sets. Speaking through the tears, he still made a point of choking out his sincere thanks for the crowd’s support. They gave him an ovation that went on so long he had started crying again by the time it was over. He won a lot of people over then and almost everyone else followed the next year, when he finally won the Championship too.
It was not that Murray changed in those moments after he lost to Federer in 2012, more that everyone else did. We stopped wanting him to be something he is not, stopped expecting him to be anything other than what he is and has always made himself out to be.
The honesty that used to get him into trouble came to seem instead like a mark of his integrity. It meant he never shied away from issues others run from.
He spoke out about match-fixing, doping and the hypocrisy of taking sponsorship from betting companies. He is a forthright feminist, so convinced in it that it is almost as if he is surprised to find there are people out there who could still believe in anything else. Which makes the knuckleheads who disagree with him about, say, equal pay, or the ability of a woman to work as a man’s coach, look stupid.
It is rare enough for a sportsman to be so successful, much rarer still for one to be so unaffected by his success.