Andy Murray: better than a loveable loser

He’s got a reputation as a self-obsessed, grumpy brat, but at least he’s got a chance of winning Wimbledon.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

How do you like your tennis heroes? A brilliant brat like John McEnroe? A polite, but plucky loser like Tim Henman? A loveable clown like Ilie Nastase? A ruthless, but charisma-free champ like Sampras? Or that enviable nice-guy-plus-godlike-genius combo that Federer manages to pull off?

Then there’s Andy Murray. He’s a bit surly but, unusually, rather good for a Brit. In fact, as the mass cull of British players on day two of the Wimbledon tournament illustrated, he’s our only world-class tennis player, our only contender. So he deserves our unconditional love, n’est-ce pas? Well, not necessarily. Even though he’s ranked no.3 in the world, has reached the US Open final, and represents Britain’s only real hope of winning a grand slam, the nation has been slow to warm to the 22-year-old Scot.

His epic fourth-round win over Stanislas Wawrinka may be a watershed for Andy Murray, the moment the British public surrendered to Murraymania. The Centre Court roof was closed. The lights were on. The game went on until 10.39pm. And 12.6million people tuned in to BBC1 to watch. That’s 2.6million more than watched this year’s Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona. I think this means it officially qualifies as a Shared National Experience (SNE). People were talking about it at work, so it must be a bona fide SNE.

However, although the nation shared Murray’s emotional rollercoaster on Tuesday night, I suspect you will still find a few curmudgeons complaining that he doesn’t smile enough or that he’s too arrogant. Murraymoania might not be as vocal as it was in previous years, but it hasn’t gone away. In a recent Daily Mail column, Piers Morgan wrote: ‘I scoured the internet last week to see what his own countrymen were saying about him on the blogs and the results were extraordinarily abusive. He’s “arrogant”, “aloof”, “ugly”, “ill-mannered”, a “bad loser”, “emotionless” and worst of all, he’s SCOTTISH.’ (1)

Some still haven’t forgiven Murray for his quip back in 2006 that he was supporting ‘Anyone But England’ in the World Cup finals. Last year, after another Murray epic against Richard Gasquet, Mirror columnist Tony Parsons wrote: ‘He was awesome, he was magnificent, but I can’t pretend I’ve suddenly fallen in love with the fiery Scot. His anti-English remarks cannot be forgotten so easily. No doubt there are other Englishmen and women who will feel differently because everyone loves a winner, but despite his incredible performance on Monday, I still can’t confuse him with Bobby Moore.’ (2)

Murray has been criticised in the past for his surly, grungy teenager demeanour. ‘Murray is too aggressive, too surly, too focused, too hairy and utterly charmless’, wrote Liz Hunt in the Telegraph (3). His unrestrained celebrations have also been criticised. ‘It was rage; pure unadulterated rage’, wrote Amanda Platell in the Daily Mail. ‘Murray’s antics on Centre Court on Monday epitomised the values not of one of our great national traditions, but of yob Britain.’ (4)

Murray will never be the bland, well-mannered, Home Counties poster boy that Tim Henman was. But he has clearly had a style makeover. Gone is the scruffy unkempt hair. Gone are the oversized baggy t-shirts. His tailored retro Fred Perry outfit ticks all the right mod boxes. As Martin Johnson in The Times quipped: ‘Someone on his team realised that Tim’s rapport with the people may have had something to do with resembling a choirboy or a school milk monitor and Murray now comes on to court — if not quite as clean cut — at least not resembling the Loch Ness Monster’ (5).

Times columnist Matthew Syed has observed a detectable maturing: ‘Having reached the ripe old age of 22, he is charm itself. Well, almost. When he does swear he generally does so quietly enough to evade the directional courtside mikes. He gives expansive interviews, sensible sermons on the state of tennis, says rather nice things about his fellow competitors and whenever you speak to tennis journalists they tell you that he is immensely likeable one on one.’ (6)

Has the new well-groomed, grown-up Andy Murray won the hearts and minds of Wimbledon’s notoriously conservative patrons? Has Murray’s nerve-shredding five-setter against Wawrinka silenced his detractors for good? We’ll have to wait and see. But the fact that so many Brits have criticised Murray’s conduct reveals a traditional flaw in our sporting culture. It’s a hangover from the Victorian conceit that sport was an instrument of moral edification. The Victorians elevated sportsmanship over the grubby venal desire to win at all costs. Unlike the nineteenth-century toffs, we don’t find professionalism distasteful (as long as sports stars don’t flaunt their wealth like those arriviste footballers). However, we still expect our top sportsmen to conduct themselves in the ‘correct manner’. Think Andrew Flintoff consoling Brett Lee in the second Ashes Test in 2005 (as opposed to Andrew Flintoff pissed up in a pedalo in the West Indies).

It gives me no great pleasure to admit it, but I find myself in total agreement with Piers Morgan on the question of sporting conduct. ‘I like my sporting heroes to be uncompromising, tough, ruthless, champions’, wrote Morgan. ‘If they are scowling and graceless in the process, then so be it.’ The British are still not really comfortable with the notion that the whole point of sport is to win; that it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a nice bloke or a complete bastard. All that matters is that you beat the other guy. The qualities that offend our Corinthian sensibilities are essentials in any sporting champion’s job description: aggression, arrogance, competitiveness, unquenchable desire, mental toughness, self-belief, unwavering dedication and often a large dollop of self-obsession. You certainly don’t win any medals for being charming.

Andy Murray isn’t particularly nasty. And, to be honest, if you think that not smiling much equals nasty then you really ought to get out more. Maybe he’s not as personable as Goran Ivanisevic or as demonstrably nice as Roger Federer. But he wins tennis matches and that’s the only thing we should judge him on.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Forget Mr Nice Guy, Murray’s nasty side makes him a winner, Daily Mail, 22 June 2009

(2) Tony Parsons on why Andy Murray doesn’t represent England, Mirror, 2 July 2008

(3) Why Andy Murray will never learn to love all, Telegraph, 2 July 2008

(4) Great win Andy. Pity about the yobbery, Daily Mail, 2 July 2008

(5) Mounting passion stirs folk on the hill, The Times, 28 June 2009

(6) Andy Murray has grown up in public. Learn to love him, The Times, 15 June 2009

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Topics Politics


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