Once more with feelings for the most glum sod in sport
Andy Murray has always been saggy-lipped unhappiness on spindly legs ... until one day he cracked
Andy Murray first swung a racquet when he was three years old. He has spent most of his next 28 years being the most miserable person on planet sport. Nothing and no one in any game anywhere is more uncool. And that’s despite Murray hitting 5,592 aces, winning 663 of his 854 matches as a professional, claiming 45 singles titles, and earning $61m. Some of us would die happy having been able to put a single ace past a pro. But, even by the standards of tennis players, cold husks of humanity whose minders take their pulse frequently to satisfy all concerned that they’re alive and thus still earning money for wearing logos, Murray is saggy-lipped unhappiness on hairy, spindly legs.
At least, that’s the impression you’re given when you watch him play, a cautionary torture of how bad life can get when you don’t have a proper job but are paid millions anyway. That those who see him in the pained, pallid flesh not only do so willingly, presumably, but hand over cash to enable their misfortune is worrying: how sorry must their middle class excuses for lives be?
At press conferences, stripped of his racquet and his strokes and the stark lines of the court making clear where his world ends, Murray’s head seems to sink somewhere below his knees as he mumbles haltingly through non-answers to the safest of questions put to him by poor bastard reporters who must have wondered what evil they have done to deserve having to put up with him.
Murray is not the only victim of this dangerous allergy to life. Team sport, it used to be said, doesn’t build character. But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that individual sport stunts people to a criminal degree. Years ago I interviewed a top squash player and came away in a gloomy funk: never had I encountered someone so limited in every respect beyond the physical, so utterly unsuited to interacting with anything and anyone besides chasing a small, barely bouncing ball around a windowless room. Doing so better than his opponent was the closest he came to the unattainable state of joy. How crushingly sad.
And he’s not alone. Runners are as grim as their pinched, lined faces make them look. Swimmers are pitiably unloveable. Cyclists are so boring they make runners and swimmers interesting. Almost. Happily, it’s not all bad. Golf sometimes helps the unpersonable acquire a personality. Trouble is, it’s always the same personality. So thank the gods for boxing. A vocation – it is neither a sport nor a business – that could get you killed can only make you fascinating. Racing drivers are also in danger of dying in competition. But, while they’re alive, they’re focused on nothing that can’t be measured in nanoseconds. Boxers leave the measuring to people wielding scorecards and stopwatches and get on with living life, often with drama and messiness. Until they die. What’s not to like?
Mercifully, not all tennis players are created equally. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe often stayed at the same hotel. Immediately on reaching his room Borg would close the door on the world and set about gauging the tension of every string in each of his racquets using a tuning fork. Then he would lay the racquets on the floor in order of that calibration. Job done, wordlessly, feelinglessly, soullessly, he would get some sleep. McEnroe would burst through his door, promptly unburden himself of all his racquets in the nearest corner, swear, burp, fart, and head out in search of a cheeseburger.
It’s difficult to imagine Murray knowing his way around a cheeseburger better than he does around a tuning fork. Or it used to be. Everything changed on January 11, when he shambled into another press conference. After disappearing into his tired puddle of nothingness in answer to a few questions he put a hand to his face, which was half-hidden under the brim of a cap and turned away from the dreading reporters. His chest and shoulders heaved. Then he rose and left, wiping at his eyes as he sauntered away. Three minutes passed before he returned and, as he was sinking into his chair, said one word that made him what he hadn’t been for his entire career: human.
Even so, for a moment it seemed Murray was going to revert to type: “Umm … so … yeah … not feeling good …”
Then he spoke in a voice that sounded like gravel on glass. About what he had done to try and alleviate the pain in his hip. About how nothing had worked. About being a young man trapped in an old man’s body. About feeling like he couldn’t go on. About how difficult it all was. About the dream of making it to Wimbledon one more time. There were long pauses. For questions. For thinking. For respect. For tears.
He left the scene changed in the perception of millions who had thought they knew what he was about: not very much. They were wrong. We were wrong. There’s a lot there, maybe too much to fit the snug, superficial narrative we begrudge those who fill our stages and screens. We want them to hurry up and win, not have feelings.
Murray exploded the myth. Finally, he was hip. Or was it hip to be Murray? Whichever: hip, hip, Murrah!
It’s almost six years ago since he stooped to bounce the ball on the most famous baseline in all the world, a strip of whitewash tattered by the hither and thither visited on it for the previous two weeks. On the other, equally ratty, baseline stood Novak Djokovic, waiting to receive.
The day is golden with sunshine, and Andy Murray, the most miserable man on planet sport, uncoolness personified, is serving for the 2013 Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles Championship.
When Djokovic’s backhand sails long to put Murray 15-love up, the watching David Cameron, then Britain’s prime minister, double punches the air, his piggish fists shivering in front of his pudding of a pink face. Murray soars to 40-love: triple match point. Djokovic fights back: deuce. Cameron looks aghast, bemused, stunned; like he must have done when he realised enough nutters had actually voted for Brexit. Three more deuces and three break points for Djokovic ache into the crackling air. You could cut the tension with Boris Becker’s crass commentary: “Any point will do! Let’s do this now!” When Murray garners another match point and Djokovic’s limp backhand finds the net like an exhausted bird, the new Wimbledon champion almost loses his footing. Then he drops his racquet, dismisses his cap from his head with a flip of his hand, levels his biceps and shakes his arms for all his worth, all the while roaring. Then he remembers to leave his bubble and go and shake hands with his vanquished opponent, who wears an admiring smile. Then he kicks a ball high into the stands in thumping triumph. Then he’s on his knees. Then on all fours, head in hands, sobbing with … Relief? Gratitude? Pride? Whatever it is, it doesn’t look like happiness.
But it is real, and it’s reason to wonder where the hell Murray has hid himself all of these years. Or has he always been there, and have people like me not been able to see that because we’ve been hung up on his refusal to feign fabulousness?
So here’s hoping Murray makes it to Wimbledon one more time. With feelings.