The currently agreed narrative on Andy Murray is to do with his Scottishness. Last year, he was excoriated in the press for being a ‘sour-faced Scot’; worse than that, he was, apparently, dour, petulant, chavvish, and petty. Oh do grow up, the columnists and message boards shouted with one voice. Now, there are the tiny green shoots of a wary liking for him, the tentative possibility that he might be a True Brit after all. It turns out that whole supporting ‘anyone but England’ remark about the World Cup was a joke. It took a very long time for anyone to believe this, despite Tim Henman and the journalist who asked the question patiently explaining it a hundred times. The belief that Murray had no sense of humour was so strong that no one could credit the idea that he might have a capacity for irony. Still, the Scots/English divide dies hard. No one much likes to talk about it in daily conversation; ‘remember the clearances’ is not going to lead to happy chat around the dining table. But the moment a sporting event takes place, all the old prejudices put on their glad rags and go out on the town to do the fandango. ‘I see the chippy Scots are out in force,’ remarked one contributor to the Guardian comment boards this week. (The Guardian! What happened to their bleeding hearts?)
Despite the fact that people are conceding that Murray has grown up, cut his hair, and learnt some manners, the Scottish thing lingers, like a pea under the mattress of every princess. According to the papers, the moment he loses, which could be in under three hours from now, he will be a Scot again, his honorary Britishness swiftly revoked. Everyone will mutter clichés under their breath and start talking of the West Lothian Question. Well, I live in Scotland and love it so much that when I am away from it I miss it like a person. One of the men in my local butcher does give me a funny look when I ask for neck of lamb, but I choose not to believe it is because I do so in an English accent. I resist patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, but despite this, every time Murray wins a match there is a tiny cheer for Scotland in my heart. Yet it is more than not sheer chauvinism that makes me love him, and love him I do.
I think the reason that people did not warm to him for so long has nothing to do with him being a Scot, that was just a convenient basket of bigotry in which to carry their dislike. I think they did not like him because he did not need them. He refused resolutely to resort to charm. Almost everyone now in the public eye attempts a little bit of charm, so when none if forthcoming it can come as a jarring shock. Even self-styled hate figures like Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsey will occasionally try to please. There was a hint of the Susan Boyle phenomenon in the early days: Murray did not look the part. Compared to the smooth but bland Tim Henman, Murray was all rough and no diamond. Newspapers called him ‘snaggle-toothed’ with casual cruelty, complained about his hair, his spots, his general gawkiness. When the absolute fury that he directs against himself when he plays a bad shot leaked out into on-court swearage, he was accused of throwing tantrums. He was not sweet and beautiful like Beckham, or courtly and polished like Steve Redgrave. He did not tick any of the sporting hero boxes.
In my cussed way, I find all the things that people dislike in him only add to my love. I like it that his will to win is so extreme that he can think of little else. (Interestingly, it is this that makes other tennis players admire him; ‘he just really wants it,’ said John McEnroe last week, with a doff of the cap from someone who really knows about tantrums and desire.) I like that he does not schmooze and oil up and read from the prescribed script. I am in awe of his work ethic: he practises for hours on end; runs, pumps weights and does mad feet-off-the-ground press ups to build up his physical fitness; he plunges himself into terrifying ice baths for a reason I cannot fathom. His dedication to his game is complete. So what if his after-match interviews are not festivals of style and wit?
Oddly though, away from his playing persona, a completely different Murray emerges. I saw a Youtube clip of him being interviewed on Jonathan Ross; he was laughing his head off, not a hint of dourness in sight. At home, he likes playing Frisbee with his dog (massive points in my book, due to incurable canine bias), has a steady girlfriend for whom he buys presents on impulse, and goofs around with his coaches. Despite his reputation for rudeness, he took the time in the middle of one of the most high pressure tournaments of his career to send out a little tweet thanking the staff at his local Pizza Express for staying open late on Monday night so they could cook him a pizza. I call that both thoughtful and polite. ‘He is our hero,’ said the Pizza man, with staunch lack of equivocation. (When this was reported by the Associated Press, the writer could not resist observing that it was a plain old Margherita, appropriate for a man ‘who has been criticised in some quarters for lack of personality’. Go get your own damn personalities, I say to those quarters.) After his victory at Queens, the first thing he did was not preen for the crowd or pose for the cameras, but run over and give his mum a big kiss on the cheek. Petulant, schmetulant. He is also endearingly self-deprecating, a trait the British are supposed to adore, but seem to have overlooked in this case. When asked about the letter of good luck he received from our great Britannic Majesty, he did not showboat about it. ‘That was very nice of her,’ was all he said.
Still, even if he were the dour, awkward chap of popular myth, I think I would still like Andy Murray. When he plays one of those impossible cross court running forehands, it comes as close to poetry as sport ever can. Even I, knowing nothing of tennis, can see the beauty in it. I think he puts every atom of energy he has into his game, so there is nothing left over for playing public relations. He likes the crowd, but you suspect he can do without it. There is a sense of self-containment about him, as he stretches himself to reach the heights he craves. I think he is a purist, and whether he wins or loses this afternoon, I salute that in him.