07 June, 2016

Sticking with the gritty Brit

By Preethi Ramamoorthy

There is something about the dour, monosyllabic Andy Murray that makes you want to root for him. Perhaps because of — rather than despite — his poor luck at Grand Slam finals.

It was July 7, 2012. On Henman Hill outside Centre Court at Wimbledon, umbrellas were shared, doritos were passed around, fists were pumped, strangers were hugged. And hearts were collectively broken.

It was the day when Roger Federer defeated Andy Murray and the whole of Britain to win his 7th Wimbledon title.

Before 2012, I had always been a Roger Federer fan. While I did like Murray, the prospect of watching Federer play in the finals was more exciting. As I made my way through the queue trudging up the hill before the match, I couldn’t help but wonder how Murray would cope with that moment.

It was the biggest moment in his career, but also the greatest in many years of British men’s tennis.

No British man had managed to advance this far in Wimbledon since 1938 when Henry ‘Bunny’ Austin reached the singles final.

I had decided, but never dared tell my British friends, that he wouldn’t cope at all. At least not very well.  Federer had exorcised his demons with a stunning win against Djokovic earlier and there was nothing to stop him. I concluded that Murray would put in the effort but he would crumble pretty soon.

From the moment Murray appeared on the big screen each person on that hill clapped, whistled and shouted words of encouragement. Every point that went in Murray’s favour was met with a roar of approval and every point for Federer with stony silence. And when he took the first set, the collective roar emanating from Henman Hill could’ve bought the Wimbledon roof down.

At some point during the match, I found myself cheering and encouraging Murray, my heart pounding and stomach clenching. What was this? For no player had I experienced this kind of emotional impact. There is something to be said about pack mentality after all? How does one become a fan of a particular sportsperson? Is it based purely on techniques, the skill-set? I don’t think so. That partisan crowd had made a Murray fan out of me.

Finally, after fighting for more than three hours, over four sets, Murray succumbed to Federer. It was his fourth grand slam defeat, but at least he had managed to score a set.

His post-match speech was agonising to watch, even as Sue Barker asked her questions calmly and Murray answered them trying to be unfaltering as much as possible. “I’m going to try, but it’s not going to be easy,” Murray said before breaking down, his mum, his girlfriend and his country joining him.

Yes, it has never been easy for Murray in many ways. There have been great players, even greater contests before this, but it is Murray’s biggest misfortune to have contemporaries like Federer, Djokovic and Nadal. This inhuman triumvirate has always been blocking his path. It does not matter if Federer is knocked out early, or Djokovic defeats Nadal, as long as one of them is still in the tournament, the challenge for Murray is mountainous. He was No.4, and was always seen in the shadow of the other three.

But that changed. In the same year, he overcame the same Federer to win an Olympic gold. Britain’s ‘summer of sports’ was not just about Mo Farah or Bradley Wiggins.

However, what was perhaps the most defining moment in his career and for his fans was the stunning 5-set victory over Djokovic to win the U.S Open 2012.

Murray had recruited Ivan Lendl as his coach and there was a visible change in his style. He stopped being defensive. For me, it was all finally adding up — that U.S Open win was a triumph earned over many years. He might not have the sharp cuts of Federer or the aggressive intimidation of Djokovic, but that match saw him claw his way to victory point by point, game by game. It was everything he was known for. Few sporting journeys have taken on such weight of expectations, and on that day Murray put it all to rest. For sheer grit, Murray won many hearts that night. It was 2 a.m. in Britain when he had won, but the party had just begun.

Why so serious?

“Relief”  is what Murray said he felt after the win. “I’m sorry if I’m not showing it as you would like me to.” With his surly temperament and his reluctance to smile, many have found it difficult to warm to Andy Murray, including me sometimes. Take the eccentric Djokovic and his antics on the court. Or the suave, charming Federer who can make his way inside your heart even if it was made of coal. (Even on the internet, if you’ve been following his Twitter account and his emoji journeys) But Murray has always been recognised by his moody on-court demeanour and monosyllabic interview responses. But what pulls you more to him, is that he’s just being brutally honest. What do we expect out of our sporting idols? To play their game well or to put up a pretty face for the media?

In this splendid takedown, Charlie Brooker explains why Murray can’t do both: “Can’t he just play tennis without having to turn around after each point and pull a happy face just for you, like he’s your dad watering plants in the garden and you’re a toddler watching him through the kitchen window? What do you want, a tennis champion or Mister Tumble? Make your mind up, because you’re not getting both.”

Will changing his stiff upper lip make Murray more likeable? Maybe. Maybe not.

When in Britain, you couldn’t get enough of the Murraymania, understandably. Cut to India, where you receive a sympathetic nod at best or an eye-roll at worst if you proclaim yourself to be a Murray fan. I could easily count on my fingers the number of staunch Murray fans I know. Finding more is always a cause for celebration. Even a “You like Andy Murray, right?” receiving an “I don’t mind him” response is fist-pump worthy.

At Roland Garros

This year’s French Open has been confusing for his fans, which is regular fare considering it’s Murray. Sometimes even on his good days, Murray makes playing tennis seem like swallowing a particularly bitter pill. Coming off on a brilliant spell from Rome only three weeks before the French Open this year, where he defeated Novak Djokovic in the finals, you would assume he’d sail through.

Instead, he dragged us through 10 sets just to get to the third round, trying to defeat two players — Radek Stepanek and Mathias Bourgue — both ranked outside 100. In a complete turnaround, he blitzed his way through Iva Karlovic and John Isner. And when you were sure it would be a final similar to last year, Murray produced two of the best sets he had played all year to go up against defending champion Stanislas Wawrinka. Wawrinka was left confounded, Murray was doing everything right. He became the first British man to reach the French Open final in 79 years.

On Sunday, he met Djokovic who was gunning for his first French Open title. Djokovic has been a French Open finalist three times in the last four years. No man has come so close without getting that prized honour. And the script played out just as everyone had expected. The first set was Murray’s to take. From then on it was pure self-destruction mode. Save for a few sparks, what he received from Djokovic in the next three sets was nothing short of a walloping and was painful to watch. You know he is capable of playing high-power tennis. So, why doesn’t he? Part of knowing his tennis and being a fan means you know that on some days he is unbeatable and on others he is very very beatable.

Djokovic now joins the ranks of Federer and Nadal as a player who has completed a career Grand Slam. Where does that leave Murray? This is a question for us really, and not for him. For him, it would be another session of toil, another match. Everything will go right, there will be another tournament, another final that will be testament to his fortitude, to his determination and his talent, which he strives to refine every single day. Go on, Andy. You will keep coming back. And so will we.

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