x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A long time coming for Andy Murray and the British public

Some had given up hope of ever seeing the young Scot win a Grand Slam, but a new coach and a more aggressive style have raised him into the tennis super-elite.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

It was late into the New York night on Monday as Andy Murray understatedly lifted a solitary fist into the air to celebrate his first Grand Slam victory.

It had taken him four hours and 55 minutes to finally overcome Novak Djokovic at the peak of his powers. In so doing, it matched to the minute the longest-lasting final in US Open history, in 1988, which befittingly involved his coach Ivan Lendl.

The sense of history for what Murray achieved was particularly resonant. This one has been a long time in coming, not just for Murray but for a British public starved of men's singles success in tennis.

It has taken 76 years, the late, great Fred Perry astoundingly the last British male to win a Grand Slam three years before the outbreak of the Second World War. And now, never again will the 25-year-old Scot have to answer questions about if and when he thought he could win a Grand Slam. He has done so patiently since his first major tennis success at Flushing Meadows in 2004 when he won the junior title.

It had always been said that this event more than any other Slam played to his strengths as a player, and it is a venue that has defined his career from that juniors success to his first Grand Slam final here as a senior four years later when he was blown off the court by Roger Federer.

Prior to Monday night, that had become a theme of the big finals, Murray picking up just one set in his four Grand Slam final appearances to date. But that one, in this year's Wimbledon final against a Federer back in his pomp, gave the indication that Murray was finally on the cusp of turning tennis's big three - Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal - into a big four.

After those previous heartbreaking defeats, Murray had looked broken and had questioned himself. This week he admitted: "You have a bit of disbelief because when I have been in that position many times before and not won, you do think, 'is this ever going to happen?'"

But it has happened, after a quite remarkable journey. Murray was born in Glasgow in 1987, the younger son of Willie and Judy Murray, who divorced when Murray was just 9 years old.

The young Murray suffered heartache of a much more harrowing kind just a year before that when Thomas Hamilton walked into his primary school in 1996 and gunned down 16 schoolchildren and a teacher before taking his own life, in what is now known as the Dunblane school massacre.

It is not a subject Murray is comfortable talking about in interviews and he usually brushes it off by saying he was too young to properly recall events. But in his 2008 autobiography, Hitting Back, The Autobiography, Murray, who had been in a PE lesson at the time and then hid under a desk in the headmaster's office during the rampage, recalled: "Some of my friends' brothers and sisters were killed. I have only retained patchy impressions of that day, such as being in the classroom singing songs. But I could have been one of those children."

The killer was known to the Murray family - Murray and his older brother Jamie, who has carved out a successful doubles career, had attended a youth group run by Hamilton; he had been a passenger in the Murray family car on occasions.

In his school years, it was clear that Murray excelled at sport. His maternal grandfather Roy Erskine had played professional football in the 1950s for Scottish side Hibernian and, at the age of 15, Murray was invited to train with the Glasgow Rangers Football Club.

By then, his tennis career in the junior ranks was already burgeoning, as he had picked up a racket for the first time at the age of 2. By the age of 12, he'd won the Orange Bowl, seen as the world championships for under-12s.

His first coach, Leon Smith, now the captain of Britain's Davis Cup team, talked about how Murray already stood out then. "His tennis brain was more advanced than anyone else's," recalled Smith. "Most kids, once they finished their matches, they'd be off. But he watched all his opponents, absorbed more information than anyone else."

It remains a facet of his game now: he reads opponents quickly and adapts his style of play to the changing situation just as quickly.

He moved to Barcelona to play at the highly regarded Sánchez-Casal Academy, spurred to honing his playing skills on their clay courts partly down to his frustration at failing to match one of his early rivals, a young Rafael Nadal; Murray felt he was falling behind.

It was a massive gamble, costing €30,000 (Dh142,000) a year and effectively denying him the chance to leave school with any qualifications of note.

Knocking on the door of the senior tour, Murray turned to former British player Mark Petchey as his coach, a partnership that lasted until 2006.

By that point, there had been a perception that the youngster was a sulky sort, prone to on-court strops and grumpy post-match interviews. It's a reputation that still sticks in some quarters, mostly because Murray feels no need to please for the sake of it.

Such an observation of sulkiness could not be wider of the mark. Petchey said: "Everyone sees Andy on court and they see this volatile, stroppy kid but I can assure you, you can't get more of a 360 away from the course."

In November 2010, I travelled to Valencia in Spain to interview him. When I got there, I was told by his management company I had just 20 minutes of his time.

Despite interventions from his management, he waved them off and was still talking 45 minutes later, during which he proved engaging and amusing company. Of the public perception, he said: "I think everyone would like to be liked but, anyway, I think I'm nice."

Although he plays in front of audiences of thousands at a time, he does not find taking centre stage at a press conference comfortable. He even avoided doing a best man's speech at his brother's wedding.

The aforementioned 2006 season proved a turning point for Murray as he teamed up with Brad Gilbert, a former player who had rescued the career of Andre Agassi. It led to a first tour win at the SAP Open.

That same year, Murray started dating Kim Sears. The couple live together in leafy Surrey, just outside London, with their two dogs, Rusty and Maggie May - the latter even has her own Twitter page and 15,000 followers (@maggiemay_hem). There has been talk of wedding bells next year but Murray has been quick to defuse those rumours.

While their relationship has stayed strong bar a short break, the partnership with Gilbert fractured before too long, the pair not sufficiently seeing eye to eye as the pressures of the men's game and the constant travel took their toll.

There followed the first beginnings of Team Murray, the Scot working under Miles Maclagan as his main coach, and later Alex Corretja, with a team of others behind him. The titles followed - he boasts 24 career single titles - but never when it mattered most.

The 2008 season proved his breakthrough, with that first Grand Slam final appearance, but there was a lack of consistency in the big performances until last season.

Amazingly, he reached the semi-final stage of all four Grand Slams as well as reaching the Australian Open final, but in the public's eyes it was deemed insufficient.

There was no problem with Murray's fitness - he works with Jez Green on a programme that entails a gut-wrenching schedule in the winter heat in Miami - but there was a cutting edge missing to his game.

So, he began having conversations with eight-time Grand Slam winner Lendl about becoming his coach. Lendl had been approached by about 10 other of Murray's peers to do the same thing but he saw something different in the Scot and agreed to take on his first-ever coaching post.

There were sceptics that suggested it wouldn't work. In their first tournament together, Murray reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open but lost to Djokovic in an epic match that was barely decided by a few points.

But there was a change in attitude and style of play. It helps that Murray and Lendl share the same dark humour, and it is noticeable that life is all smiles off the court but never on it. The petulance, almost a propensity to throw in the towel in the past, was merely greeted by a scowl of disapproval from Lendl if there were any signs of it appearing.

But Lendl also brought a more aggressive style to his play. Murray has been accused of being too defensive in the past and of merely grinding down opponents from the back of the court. Now, he looks to attack - standing a little farther forward when receiving serve - and is more proactive with his second serve.

The approach failed to reap the ultimate rewards at Wimbledon but finally reached fruition at the Olympics, where Murray produced two of the performances of his career to brush aside Djokovic and Federer. In some ways, the Olympic gold eased the Grand Slam millstone.

His US Open win this week was much more hard fought but no less impressive, and finally the duck was broken. Tellingly, it took Lendl five Grand Slam finals for him to win for the first time. So too Murray - so perhaps the British public can expect the floodgates to open.

Having the likes of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal in his way have made his record in 2012 all the more impressive. As he said: "Having them around makes your achievements even greater, as they are the best who have ever played the game."

With just one slam to his name, it might be far-fetched to say Murray is in the same league just yet, but he is not about to rest on his laurels. His bar bill in New York's Hakkasan restaurant following his US Open success ran to $6,500 (Dh23,874). Murray's share was a solitary lemon soda costing $6.