The agony and the ecstasy of Andy Murray

  • Themes: Sport

Andy Murray played tennis more brutally, more effectively, and with greater professional success than any Englishman of the modern era, while refusing to play the game of English manners. His Scottishness is a crucial, and yet poorly understood, element of his character and key to explaining his journey to sporting greatness.

Andy Murray at the Wimbledon Championships in 2015
Andy Murray at the Wimbledon Championships in 2015. Credit: Juergen Hasenkopf / Alamy Stock Photo

Tennis is the European game par excellence. Played by princes and kings for centuries in its previous incarnation as Jeu de Paume or Real Tennis – Henry VIII was a great fan and invented the most important and counter-intuitive element of this earlier racquet sport: certain points are held in trust, for various obscure reasons, and played off at the end of each game. Tennis became the universal game of the world’s bourgeoisie in the 19th and early 20thcenturies. Now it’s one of the most popular sports in the world and is played by virtually everyone, although perhaps with greater regularity by the western middle classes. There is barely a city on the planet which doesn’t have a tennis club – from Tehran to Tokyo, from Hobart to Dunblane – where the average punter can hand over a tenner and get an hour on court. Padel, a close variant of tennis and squash, is becoming more popular but remains a minority pursuit outside Spain and Latin America. Modern tennis is the racquet sport that has outcompeted all others.

The game’s courts have formed the background to momentous events in European arts and culture. The French philosopher Montaigne’s brother was killed in a freak accident, struck on the head by a ball, only to collapse a few hours later: a genuinely shocking event which formed the imaginative background to the great man’s quest to investigate comprehensively the human phenomenon in his Essais. Caravaggio murdered a man on a tennis court – fuelling the Italian painter’s legend as the ‘bad boy’ of the Renaissance. In the opening pages of the Scottish novelist and poet James Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a Georgian satire of Reformation Scotland and of the Calvinist notions of predestination and the elect, the fanatical ‘sinner’ at the centre of the novel’s story attempts to disrupt a tennis game on the basis that it is pursuit that leads only to ‘damnation’. The players are identified as tending to ‘the Jacobite order’, sympathetic to the claims of the Catholic Stuart dynasty – doubly damned in the Presbyterian worldview.

Hogg, who had a wicked sense of humour and delighted in prodding the self-righteous and pompous pretensions of Enlightenment-era Edinburgh, would have been much amused that, two hundred years later, the greatest tennis player Britain has ever produced is, arguably, the greatest individual sportsperson Scotland has produced, too. Andy Murray has made his final appearance at Wimbledon, perhaps his final appearance as a professional player. It is oddly appropriate that he was cruelly deprived of his chance of a ‘last dance’ on his own terms. He was due to play together with Emma Raducanu in the mixed doubles tournament until she withdrew prompting dismayed incomprehension in the Murray camp. Appropriate because so many of the high points of his career have felt as if they have been wrestled from the grip of the sporting gods, through sheer determination and human willpower. Through canniness and extreme levels of endurance, and despite so many injuries, so much pain, Murray has spent a significant period as the best player on the planet, in the world’s most competitive and professionalised individual sport, in its greatest ever era.

That’s enough about his sporting achievements, which are undisputed and acknowledged pretty much universally. I want to draw out something different about Andy Murray, aspects of his personality and worldview which remain poorly understood and are often caricatured. For when commentators talk about Murray’s ‘Scottishness’, it is often to register for the public’s benefit the commonly held assumption that he is the surly, taciturn and grumpy Scot of well-oiled English stereotype. But to Scots like me, Murray appears in a very different light. One of Murray’s most attractive qualities is that he has played the mannered game of the English more brutally, more effectively, and with greater professional success than any Englishman, while refusing to play the game of English manners, life played like a game, the rules set by fraudulent hail-fellow-well-met chancers and the hopeless and incompetent sons of privilege.

It is a battle for the British soul that resonates within England too – think of EM Forster’s bitter and brilliant satires of Edwardian society. In A Room With a View, a novel whose hero and heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, a typical Home Counties girl, and George Emerson, a manager on the railways with mildly socialist views, representative of the bold and great-hearted men and women of all classes, who, for Forster, should inherit England, and yet so rarely do in the face of hidebound prejudice and well-practised hypocrisy. Every generation, to accept Forster’s worldview, has to fight this battle anew against the forces of snobbery and close-mindedness, represented in A Room with a View  by the emetic and well-connected Cecil Vyse, intent on marrying Lucy against her best interests and unforgettably characterised by George as ‘the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things – books, pictures – but kill when they come to people’.

Curiously, one of the most memorable scenes in the novel involves tennis. Cecil sits out a doubles game involving George, his love rival, and Lucy. He snipes from the sidelines, while George involves himself with gusto: ‘He wanted to live now, to win at tennis, to stand for all he was worth in the sun – the sun which had begun to decline and was shining in her eyes; and he did win.’ It is a moment of clarity for Lucy who suddenly realises that Cecil is bad news and that she cannot marry him, even if George is the more unconventional match. Forster is on the side of those who can see beyond the mendacious paradoxes of civilised life – those who can live in a humanistic spirit of emotional truth, for whom connection with others is real and the claims of love can never be denied.

That battle for truth, for emotional truth, has a special political and historical resonance in the Scottish context. Writing a century ago, the novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon noted that modern Scottish identity was poorly served by general assumptions of Scottishness that rarely spoke in terms other than ‘the fictitious faces of heroic Highlanders, hardy Norsemen, lovely Stewart queens, and dashing Jacobite rebels’. And yet, ‘behind those grimaces of the romanticised or alien imagination a real people once lived and had its being, and hoped and feared and hated, and was greatly uplifted, and loved its children, and knew agony of the patriotic spirit, and was mean and bestial and generous, and sardonically merciful.’

Murray’s public persona bears living testament to this real Scotland. Amazon Prime’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, Resurfacing, follows Murray’s tortuous attempts to rehabilitate his body after a serious and potentially career-ending hip injury. It is worth watching simply to observe a rare sportsperson whose public profile is no different at all to the way he conducts himself in private. There is no mask, no disguise: he is who he is. He is the person whom you see: on court, in interviews and at home. There are plenty of distinctively Scottish elements, in all their bemusing contradictions, which are easy to observe: the moral clarity shaded with elements of self-righteousness; a capacity for work inseparable from near-maniacal standards of self-perfection; a razor-sharp intellect that doesn’t know how or when to stop whirring; an outward, seemingly placid, mental landscape suddenly disrupted by unpredictable peaks and troughs of emotion; and, the most winning of those qualities, a genuinely funny, deadpan, dry, caustic sense of humour. It is, as J.M. Barrie described it in his 1922 address to the students of St Andrews University, ‘the thrawn national way that deceives everybody except Scotsmen.’

In the documentary, even Murray’s coaches find him occasionally difficult, asking questions to the camera, whose tone suggests, ‘Why is he like this?’ I remember pleading to the screen – he’s like that because he’s Scottish! And his personality, as it was in my own upbringing, has been marked by the real stamp of Scottishness, by the countless people, whether family or teachers, under whose influence and assumptions the work and labour of life takes shape. I’m now at an age, 29, when many of the sporting heroes I grew up with are close to retirement. To the child and teenager, sportspeople are like demi-gods, fully formed from divinely charged clay. As a young adult, sportspeople become far more human – their flaws and faults are much more accessible, often as they seem to uncannily mirror one’s own. It is hard, in this still relatively adolescent phase of life, to separate out the qualities you see in elite athletes (and also in men and women of genius in the arts) from the virtues you want to find in yourself. What comes next, how appreciation for human culture changes with time, as it must – both for Sir Andy, and for all those who grew up with him, watching him, willing him on – is a mysterious aspect of the ageing process I’ll leave to others to explain.


Alastair Benn