Sometimes it's that simple: the better guy won
TIPPING POINT:Not winning has become a sign of personal deficiency instead of the more prosaic yet straight forward reality, writes BRIAN O'CONNOR
THE CENTRE Court roof means those old time-filler chats between Sue Barker and an assortment of ex-professionals during rain delays are no more. But much of Wimbledon will remain reassuringly constant over the coming fortnight. Like plucky first-round exits for most of the home players; expensively modulated shouts of “Come on Tim” generating unlikely hysterics; the queues; the strawberries; Cliff Richard; and tabloid pictures of the latest Russian “stunna”. But most of all there will be Andy Murray.
It’s supposed to be easy to dislike Murray. He is, after all, possessed of a surliness that is lingering far too long for adolescent angst to be used as an excuse any more. And he has a playing method long on efficacy but short on style. He also sported a hairstyle that quite frankly was an affront to civilisation but is at last being tidied up a bit. His popular persona is, it is fair to say, a mite humourless, something not uncommon among natives of Scotland’s dour lowlands.
But there’s also something immensely appealing about Murray’s disdain for tweaking that public image. He clearly doesn’t give much thought to what people think of him and if he has someone attempting to give him a coat of PR sheen, it doesn’t seem to be taking to that pale Caledonian skin. In itself, this is enough to retain a fondness for the fourth-best player on the plant.
But then there’s Wimbledon: the one time in the year when this part of the world suddenly pays attention to tennis and even ventures out in the rain with rackets only to find access to most courts available only through a hefty membership fee.
Murray has been at the epicentre of this temporary frenzy across the water for more than half a decade now, learning to cope with the expectations of a public and media desperate for success in the world’s most famous tournament and unable to cope with the lack thereof – unless you count torrents of mockery and ridicule.
It is the way of the world for hacks whose greatest athletic achievement is lurching from the pub without falling down to pen insightful and penetrative pieces on the inadequacies of elite athletes, a reality Murray apparently has yet to come to grips with.
Tim Henman manfully faced up to the double standard. While any reasonable analysis would conclude that Henman squeezed every last drop out of his talent, and rose to become one of the top handful of players in the world, the man has popularly become a punchline in terms of anodyne harmlessness and irrelevance. Thus Nick Clegg is “the Tim Henman of British politics”.
But just because it is a reality doesn’t mean it’s edifying. And in 2012, Diamond Jubilee year, 35 years after Virginia Wade provided the perfect patriotic denouement to the Silver Jubilee, the demand for “our boy” to finally come up with the goods and finally win a grand slam will be overwhelming.
Murray is hardly a comfortable fit in the “our boy” role. For one thing he’s Scottish, a drawback not aided by the fact he is unashamedly Scottish. The story about him dressing up in a Paraguay shirt during the 2006 World Cup typically got blown out of all proportion but no one could honestly claim it couldn’t have happened. And it’s more than that.
If Henman was a poster boy for England’s middle-class tennis heartland – all carefully pressed whites and restrained dignity – Murray is an altogether more prickly individual.
Ordinarily you’d think that would work to his advantage. The public is more cynical now, more responsive to anti-heroes compared to when Britain’s last male grand slam champion, Fred Perry, conducted an uneasy relationship with his home country.
Murray isn’t an exhibitionist rebel, though. There’s no fluent obscenity à la McEnroe or Connors, and no Agassi-style flamboyance. There isn’t even the frantic gurning that made one wonder what Ile Nastase did on those rare occasions when he was alone and had no audience to show off to – pull faces at the mirror, perhaps?
The Scot is more introverted – no stranger to a well-placed swear word or three but not prone to throwing them around for any other reason than intense frustration with his own play.
It can’t be a barrel of laughs being around him. By all accounts Murray works like a dog and tries to meet impossibly high standards. Apparently having Ivan Lendl as a coach has resulted in much more laughter in the camp, something that indicates the miserly number of chuckles there must have been before.
But it’s hard not to feel for the guy. The longer he goes on without winning one of the grand slams, the more intense the expectation becomes, and the blame game intensifies. Murray has appeared in three finals to date, losing the 2008 US to Federer and the Aussie in 2010 and 2011 to Federer and Djokievic respectively.
Last year he joined the select group of players in the history of the game to make the semi-finals in all four slams. And yet for the next two weeks he will be a medium for that curiously English mixture of hope and scepticism that in all likelihood will dissolve into a fatalism that will see Murray derided as a failure.
It is often an affectation of the sports-scribbling game that triumph and failure are presented in pseudo-psychological terms that supposedly reflect the positives and negatives of the central personalities. Not winning becomes a sign of a personal deficiency instead of the more prosaic yet straightforward explanation that the other guy is just better.
There has been plenty of it on the back of Ireland’s Euro 2012 campaign, an experience presented as a failure of tactical acumen and determination, as if systematic organisation is enough to cope with superior talent on a consistent basis instead of on occasionally unexpected once-offs.
Sometimes it really is simple enough that the other guy is better.
It is Murray’s unhappy fate to be playing at a time when there are three guys better than him. The fact that two of the three rate right at the top when discussions about the greatest of all time begin, and the third just happens to be World Number 1 right now, is an accident of timing the Scot must curse in his sleep.
Many great athletes have been in the same boat. How blemish-free would Joe Frazier’s record have been if he’d faced the succession of pugs that allowed Rocky Marciano remain unbeaten. Instead of which he operated at the same time as Ali and Foreman who gave him a fearsome slapping in Kingston.
Alydar would have been a Triple Crown champ if he hadn’t been foaled in the same year as Affirmed.
Dublin footballers would have galloped through the 70s without anyone laying a glove on them were it not for the fact that Kerry came along. Hell, Henman kept running into Sampras.
But there are certain Wimbledon traditions that will never stop. And one is that if a Brit wins a first-round match, then the spotlight starts to burn on them like a hot magnifying glass on a bug.
All told, Murray has manfully borne the heat over the years. And if he were to sneak a win this time, well, the surrounding hysteria might be hard to swallow, but for the man himself, well, it really would be jolly good show.