By: Andrew Eccles
As Andy Murray takes the stage in London after a rollercoaster year, I wonder: is there a place for patriotism in tennis?
His relationship with the British public has certainly evolved over the course of his career. First emerging onto the scene as a player thought to be the best Brit in many years came as a shock to tennis traditionalists, who much preferred the charisma and traditional serve-and-volley play of Tim Henman – the nation’s leading male player for what felt like decades.
Murray did not have Henman’s on court personality – the very embodiment of the “dour Scot” stereotype, he was young, awkward, and temperamental. He did very “un-British” things like publicly expressing negative emotion. It was all seen as impolite, and met with disapproval.
Throw in an on-air joke about supporting “anyone but England” at the World Cup, and the Brit press – that malignant blight on the British reputation – didn’t just have a Moody Kid headline to skewer Murray with. They had a Racist Moody Scot headline instead, which was of course ‘racist’ in and of itself.
For a while it worked. Public opinion was against him for 50 weeks a year which, in truth, isn’t so bad when you’re barely on the radar for 50 weeks a year.
Fortunately for Murray, who is not racist and who, monotone notwithstanding, is actually a very good-humored and enigmatic character off the court, there has always been Wimbledon. When it comes to tennis, the only thing the British public love more than Roger Federer, is rooting for the plucky Brit* at Wimbledon.
*Plucky Brit, n. – One who battles adversity, loses, and emerges a hero for having tried anyway. Will be not knighted, though. The Queen is over it.
It is a trait that I’m sure bewilders nations that primarily love a champion and kick “good-efforters” to the curb. Brits find themselves strangely drawn to the trials of persistent hard graft that leads to failure – and it’s a good job, because there has been plenty of it. Murray was the new plucky Brit. He wasn’t typically likeable, but he was giving it his all. Traditionalists could cheer for a score line, liberals could cheer for a shoulder-slumping gangly rebel, actual tennis fans could cheer because they recognized a real talent that needed time to mature.
And mature he did. The body grew into itself, the mood swings became calmer, and the game lifted. A Wimbledon trophy was held aloft.
His Wimbledon win was a turning point. Suddenly Britain had to cope with success, and they weren’t sure how to do it. Tennis is not, in fact, a huge sport in the United Kingdom, certainly not in the way it is in countries like Switzerland. There, you can walk into a takeaway pizza place at 11:45pm and there will be a screen in the corner showing live coverage of the second round of New Haven featuring Petra Kvitova and Ekaterina Makarova.
And people are WATCHING IT.
By the time he won Wimbledon, Murray was already a Grand Slam champion. But frankly, if you say “US Open” in most British living rooms, you’re either talking about golf or you’re a tennis writer. It may have appeared that Britain was excited by this, but in truth it was only tennis press (one column, somewhere about five pages from the back of the newspaper) and Sue Barker on the BBC.
I had listened to the 2012 US Open final in entirety on the radio, while sleeping on a vicar’s couch in a little house off of Covent Garden (don’t ask), where there was no TV coverage of the match. When I tried to share the news, I was mostly met with “oh, is that a big tournament then?” Don’t even get me started on trying to sell Roland Garros or – heaven forbid! – the Australian Open.
Winning Wimbledon made Andy Murray a more constant figure in British culture – now he could be awarded Sports Personality of the Year. Now he would inevitably appear on annual charity fundraisers like Comic Relief and Children in Need, now his mother is a celebrity contestant on the Strictly Come Dancing, UK’s biggest Saturday night show, and is voted through week-after-week despite being one of the weakest dancers because, well, she’s Judy Murray.
Now Murray is a welcome presence for the majority of the British public. They like that he won Wimbledon. The London Olympics was incredibly unifying and warmed hearts that had remained cold towards him. He’s now reached such a level of familiarity that even declaring his pro-Independence stance towards Scotland on the day of voting won’t have done too much to damage his reputation in other parts of the nation.
It has been a tough season for Andy, but a good one considering the back surgery he required in the fall of 2013. Yet, the majority of the British public don’t know he had back surgery. They do know he didn’t win Wimbledon this year – so maybe it really was just a one off – but they like him nonetheless. Going into the ATP Finals, Murray is likely to be the star attraction for the ticket-holding Brits who know the tournament is happening. Again, don’t get me started on trying to explain to people what the ATP Finals are, even though they happen in London.
There is something charming about Andy Murray, a player who has natural tennis instincts so embedded in their mind that crossing over the baseline to attack is a sign of professional growth. There is something charming about the unlikable characters who can’t really help being unlikable. He’s very…Kristen Stewart, in that way.
I believe there is a place for patriotism in tennis. I don’t see any harm in supporting a player because you share a home nation, provided that doesn’t translate into opposing all those who hail from different shores. Your landscape has to be part of your inner-self in even the smallest of ways, and I’ll admit that I find sharing the air drifting down from the local mountains has instilled a greater understanding of the mind-set of the Swiss. A shared home is a shared experience.
As a side note, say the words “Patty Schnyder” to a Swiss if you ever get the chance – the reactions are varied and will hugely enrich your day.
So, yes, Andy Murray and the British public are bound by a certain complex relationship, one that every nation surely feels with their home player, complicated further by evolving perceptions of British nationhood. And yes, the relationship between Andy and the public is likely to hold firm.
Even in individual sport, patriotism can enrich and inform, and it’s here to stay. Or perhaps, the malignancy of Brit-press culture has worked its way into my fingertips as I type.
More time in the mountains for me.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @BackSwings!