x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A good guy and nearly famous

When Fred Perry won the last of his three successive men's singles titles at Wimbledon in 1936, Andy Murray's grandparents were in nappies.

Andy Murray proudly holds the AEGON Championship trophy after  beating James Blake in the final at Queens Club in London last week.
Andy Murray proudly holds the AEGON Championship trophy after beating James Blake in the final at Queens Club in London last week.

When Fred Perry won the last of his three successive men's singles titles at Wimbledon in 1936, King Edward VIII was preparing to scandalise polite society by announcing his intention to abdicate in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, James Braddock reigned as heavyweight champion of the world, and Andy Murray's grandparents were in nappies. Seventy-three years on, Virginia Wade and Ann Jones have achieved Centre Court glory in the women's singles, but, for British men, the manicured lawns of south-west London have been the scene of unremitting disappointment. Roger Taylor (1967-70-73), Mike Sangster (1961) and Tim Henman - on a heart-breaking four occasions - reached the semi-finals only to succumb, and now the hopes of the country again rest solely on 22-year-old Scottish shoulders.

When Murray stood just five points away from victory against former Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian of Argentina in the third round of the 2005 championships only to falter when his gangly teenage body started to suffer a variety of aches and pains, Jimmy Connors described that Saturday afternoon as "day one of the rest of his career". Approximately 1,400 days on, Murray is firmly established as the third best player in the world behind Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Although he has yet to win a grand slam title he has already gone one step further than his boyhood hero Henman by reaching the final of last year's US Open at Flushing Meadow, where he received the runners-up trophy after losing to Federer.

And so to Wimbledon where despite Murray's insistence that grass is his least favourite surface - a pronouncement somewhat diluted by last weekend's victory over American James Blake in the Queen's Club final - he can expect the same level of manic adoration normally reserved for Wayne Rooney and Lewis Hamilton by the great British sporting public. A nation expects and Murray would like nothing better than to deliver; but a decade hence, would he be satisfied with equalling Henman's admirable record of four semi-final appearances without ever laying hands on the sport's most glittering prize? "Yes," he says before adding after a suitably dramatic pause, "but only if I've won at least one US, French or Australian championship. I want to win grand slam titles. Any of them. I have no preference."

Although it was Andre Agassi who first attracted Murray to the All England Club as a wide-eyed seven-year-old clutching a bulging autograph book it was Henman who served as the Scot's youthful inspiration and his affection for "the almost man" of British tennis is tangible. "I know that some people will always regard Tim as a failure, yet he was undoubtedly one of our greatest ever sportsmen. In his own era, I certainly can't think of anyone else who came close to matching his achievement for the best part of a decade. Everyone in the media used to go on and on about David Beckham but was he one of the best 10 players in his chosen sport? No way. So, OK, Tim never won Wimbledon but the England football team never won anything at all with David Beckham in the side. It's plain stupid to call Tim a failure."

With Henmania now superseded by Murraymania and Henman Hill, where the ticketless hordes assemble with their Tupperware lunches to follow the action on the Centre Court on the giant screen, renamed Murray Mount, how does our young hero relish the notion of being the focus of all eyes when he strolls through the Fred Perry gates on Monday to begin his latest adventure. "It's cool," he grins impishly. "It goes with the job. I'm fortunate in as much that I'm only a wee bit famous for a fortnight then it tends to die down again. It's only during Wimbledon that I'm constantly under the microscope. I hate to think what it would be like to be really famous like Tiger Woods, whose every move is documented every day of his life.

"Yes, I do get recognised from time to but I don't really go out that much. [Do not expect to see the home-loving Murray sashay down the red carpet in the company of the glitterati at a movie premiere in Leicester Square]. I spend a lot of time walking the dog on Putney Common. It's all pretty dull, actually." For "dull" read "unassuming". When asked why, as Wimbledon champion, he could shop in his local Sainsbury's in Fulham's King's Road without causing chaos in the aisles whereas Boris Becker generated mayhem where're he roamed, Stefan Edberg replied: "Boris acts like he thinks a superstar should act. I'm just the son of a Swedish policeman." And Murray will forever be the son of the endearingly down-to-earth Judy.

"I don't go out in disguise because I don't have to do that kind of thing. I don't wear a hat pulled down over my face. I dress in normal clothes and just try to fit in as unobtrusively as possible. People do stop me for photos or an autograph from time to time, but almost everyone's been very supportive," he says. That is the inherent modesty of the Scots talking. Despite his protestations that he is "only a wee bit famous", Murray has become an A-List celebrity in the British sporting firmament. Sir Sean Connery is wont to send him a good luck text before important matches and Scottish band Rock Salt & Nails are releasing a record in his honour - Volley Highway - to coincide with the start of Wimbledon.

Murray isbemused that his opinion on anything and everything seems to matter. When Hibernian - the Scottish football club he supports through a family attachment stretching back to the 1950s when his granddad Roy Erskine played for the Edinburgh side - appointed a new manager last week, he was inundated with newspaper requests inviting him to pass comment on the appointment of John Hughes. Although he interestthe Glasgow Rangers' junior setup before opting to concentrate on tennis, Murray was genuinely baffled anyone should ask his opinion on Hibs' managerial situation.

"He did a very good job with Falkirk so we'll wait and see what happens but it's looking promising and I wish him all the best," he says when pressed. The great and the good listen to what he has to say; at his last meeting with Gordon Brown - "I'm not too into politics but he was just so nice. Very polite, very clever, and he obviously works incredibly hard. All you ever read about is how he does such a bad job. He can't win. Everyone just focuses on the negative" - Murray happened to mention that his mother Judy's burning ambition was to open a tennis academy in Scotland. A few days later the telephone rang in Judy's home in Bridge of Allen requesting her presence for lunch with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street to discuss the logistics. When you have the ear of the PM then a centre of excellence for Mum (the most successful coach of young talent in Britain today) and knighthood for Murray most surely awaits.

By now you may have formed the impression that if Murray were any more laid back he would be reclining in a deckchair; that he is amusing, articulate, modest and gracious and I have to tell you that - although I am biased as someone who has known him from boyhood - you would not be wrong in that assessment. A genuinely likable young man who, among those he knows and trusts, is happy to discuss any topic except the events of March 13 1996 when Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 of his fellow pupils and their teacher in the gymnasium of Dunblane Primary School. "I was very young so, fortunately, I don't remember too much about it. It was very scary but I didn't understand what was happening. One of my best friend's brothers died but I didn't find out until about two or three days after it happened," he says.

To certain members of the British newspaper corps he is seen as dour, unapproachable and downright rude on occasion. Murray does not care for the opinion of those for whom he has scant regard. In this instance, however, they can blame Henman for Murray's notorious reticence in front of a tape-recorder. "Right from the start, Tim's been fantastic to me, especially in advising me about how to deal with you guys in the press - not all of you, just some," he says.

"Basically, he told me to keep my head down and say as little as humanly possible in the nicest possible way. As Tim knew only too well, everyone writes nice things about you when you're winning but when you lose it's a different matter."So deep rooted are his suspicions that there are certain members of the tennis writing fraternity who are just waiting for the opportunity to let fly with their slings and arrows that when it came time to pen his autobiography two years ago it was no surprise that he looked outside their closed circle to appoint his ghost writer.

So why has he developed this intrinsic mistrust with those whom he has to work on a daily basis?"There are all sorts of reasons. Take the England-Scotland affair," he says. This is a young man with a long memory when it comes to being crossed. During the build up to the 2006 Wimbledon Championships and World Cup finals, Murray and Henman were conducting a light-hearted television interview when the Scot was asked to identify which country he would be supporting in Germany given Scotland's absence from the tournament. "Whoever England are playing," came the reply.

"I chuckled as I said it, I had a great big smile on my face. It should have been patently obvious to everyone that I was joking but it wasn't reported like that," says Murray. "They made up all sorts of stories about me buying a Paraguay shirt, the whole thing was absolute nonsense. Over the past year or two, it's started to finally die down but around the time it wasn't particularly nice. "People tend not to mention it to me anymore so much but I would guess there is someone out there who still thinks that I don't like the English."

Murray does not go quite as far as to plead "honestly, some of my best friends are English", but surely the presence of his English girlfriend Kim Sears in the VIP box at Wimbledon says it all. Reaction south of Hadrian's Wall has been mixed - Murray has been known to shout and swear on court whereas Timmy was always the perfect English gentleman - it goes without saying that all Scotland is rejoicing in their new "Super-Brat".

"I'm very proud because I don't get home as much as I would like. Our national football and rugby teams have been struggling in recent years so it's nice everyone is suddenly talking about a tennis player because Scotland has never been a hot-bed of tennis before," says Murray. "If I can inspire kids to take up the game then that's brilliant.'' Victory on Wimbledon's Centre Court would inspire a generation of children, so what are his chances?

"Obviously, I know I can win. It's equally obvious that I will have to play really, really well throughout the fortnight," he adds. "To return to what I was saying earlier, Wimbledon is one of four grand slam titles that I'd like to win, but because this is my 'home game', if you like, then the pressure and the attention from the public and the media are always going to be more intense. I'm not particularly comfortable with that but it's cool - it's the life I chose."

rphilip@thenational.ae