“No one on tour likes you,” Andy Murray shouted across the net to a Lukas Rosol who, just moments earlier, had bumped him as they changed ends. “Everyone hates you.”
It was a moment that has divided fans; some felt the exchange represented Murray’s moody-chic charm, others that it typified a player who known for his dour on-court demeanor. Both of these things are true: the moodiness that rests beneath the surface of every Murray performance is at once fascinating and infuriating. It has long made his relationship with the British public in particular a fraught one. Gone are the days of the polite, well-spoken and altogether English Tim Henman; Murray is a different breed.
He has carved out his popularity thanks to the London Olympics and an eventual Wimbledon win.
If anything about Murray’s outburst was illuminating, it was the idea that popularity is important to him. In a sport that requires cutthroat independence, the greatest insult Murray was able to muster was that Rosol was not well-liked. Not content with being a good player, it would seem that Murray also sees the value in being appreciated by his colleagues.
As tennis fans have gotten to know Murray, many see that his character away from the sport couldn’t be further from the heavy shouldered figure mumbling expletives at the baseline. They have seen the humor with which he approaches social media, for example, where he is as comfortable exchanging jokes with fellow players as he is at sarcastically dismissing trolls. They have seen the vulnerability with which he discusses his traumatic childhood memories of the shootings in Dunblane. They have seen his active appreciation of women’s tennis, one that far exceeds that of any other on the men’s tour.
Indeed, the more that fans have had access to Murray off the court, the greater his popularity has become. Similar to the early days of Tomas Berdych’s strange and enigmatic Twitter presence — exposing fans to the wacky nonsensical candor of a player otherwise known for a sharper tongue — Murray’s off-court appearances have demonstrated that the Scot is surprisingly eloquent beneath the monotony of his voice.
Murray has shown himself to be self-aware. Upon winning the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, he remarked in typical deadpan: “No matter how excited I try to sound, my voice still sounds incredibly boring. I’m sorry for that, I’m very happy and excited right now.” Add to this his repeated assertion that he knows he is “hard to support,” and you gain even deeper insight into the great trial of Murray’s career — evolving from the “anti-English troublemaker” from across the border, to being a genuinely well-liked sporting star.
The recognition is deserved. In a era where Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have dominated tennis, Murray has challenged them on a regular enough basis to have been considered a member of the “Big Four” long before even lifting a Grand Slam trophy in 2012. This is a lofty, possibly even exaggerated, placing of Murray within the landscape of 21st century tennis, but it is a idea that has endured.
The truth is that the tennis could have taken Murray to even greater heights had he shown the Wimbledon-winning confidence earlier in his career. Working with Ivan Lendl, Murray cast off much of the pressure that once weighed heavy – his triumphant campaign at the All-England Club featured the most relaxed and aggressive tennis Murray has ever played. Despite adopting #Relax as a social media mantra, calm is something that most often evades him on the tennis court.
Another thing to note about Murray is his startling physical evolution. When he first began making waves on the Tour, he looked every bit his age, and the lanky teenager’s legs often gave out before he could cross the finish line. He famously vomited on court at the US Open, a moment that shocked British tennis purists even more than his Scottish accent or colourful choice of on court language. Flash forward a decade and the Scot is among the strongest in the game.
Ultimately, this is what is most impressive and endearing thing about Andy Murray: he is a constant surprise, a work in progress, the most straightforward of contradictions.
If there is anything to love about Murray, it is that he is so fiercely unlovable for those who have not had the chance or the will to get to know him, and yet even easier to like for anyone paying attention to his true self. He is not perfect – I doubt even the most ardent of Murray fans would laud him as the model on which to base on-court attitude. But he is certainly a role model in ways that matter: his sporting achievements during a time of truly great giants of the game, and his unwavering principles and beliefs in equality.
Andy Murray will never be universally loved — nor does he need to be. Yet one can hardly imagine any player ever looking across the net and proclaiming “Everyone hates you!”
He’s worked hard to make sure that’s not the case.