Twice in my life has sport truly broken my heart. The first was on July 8th, 2012, watching Andy Murray lose to Roger Federer in his first Wimbledon final. The other was seeing him announce his plans to retire and breaking down in his press conference ahead of the Australian Open.
Being Scottish and a sports fan is hard. It could be one of the hardest things about being from Scotland. The constant defeat in football and an occasional glimmer of hope in rugby union. But generally, it’s not great. To quote Edinburgh author Irvine Welsh: “It’s shite being Scottish.”
But since the summer of 2005 we’ve had something to treasure as one of our own blasted onto the world tennis stage. Murray reached the third round of Wimbledon at the age of 18, easily dispatching 14th seed Radek Stepanek along the way, and we finally had someone to cheer on.
Tennis has always had a feeling of being a sport for the middle classes, but the boy from Dunblane’s emergence sought to change that.
Raised by his mother Judy, who was now a coach after her own brief playing career, he moved to Spain at the age of 15, determined even at that tender age to take his tennis education to the next level.
As Murray said “it was a big sacrifice to move away from your family,” but it was a risk that paid off, and he soon began to show he could compete against the likes of Roger Federer and his immediate contemporaries, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Between them, this formidable quartet has dominated the men’s game for more than a decade.
Tears then cheers
Early in his career, Murray was treated harshly by sections of the British media. Asked in an interview who he would be supporting in football’s upcoming European Championship in the absence (yet again) of Scotland, his tongue-in-cheek response was “anyone but England.”
Winning in New York was one thing – what the British sporting public really craved was its first Wimbledon men’s champion since Fred Perry in 1936
This endeared to him to those north of the border but seemed to generate real hatred from the south. Murray was seen as surly and miserable while also being prone to fits of temper on the court when matches weren’t going his way. There were allegations of an overbearing mother and frequent questions about his choice of coaching staff.
But that first day when sport broke my heart began to turn things around. Having lost in four sets to Federer, he broke down on the court while thanking the fans. Through his tears he promised “I’m getting closer” and the Centre Court crowd finally warmed to him.
Just a few weeks later, he would meet Federer again on the same court in the Olympic final, dismissing the Swiss legend in three sets to win gold.
Now on a roll, Murray clinched his first Grand Slam title at that year’s US Open, beating Djokovic in an epic final that lasted nearly five hours.
Winning in New York was one thing, though – what the British sporting public really craved was its first Wimbledon men’s champion since Fred Perry in 1936.
That long-awaited triumph finally came in 2013 when Murray again reached the final, this time facing Djokovic. He performed flawlessly to win in straight sets, and once again the emotions on display in victory endeared him to his now-adoring British public.
He went on to win the Wimbledon title again in 2016, also defending his Olympic crown in Rio the same year. The naysayers might see his total of three Grand Slams as ultimately disappointing and point to all the finals – including five at the Australian Open – that he reached only to lose.
But Murray’s feats have to be placed in context, and he was competing in an era featuring three of the all-time greats of men’s tennis in Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
In total, he won 45 ATP titles and spent 41 weeks occupying the No.1 spot in the world rankings. Towards the end of 2016, he won 24 consecutive matches.
His victories will be remembered for a long time in the heart of tennis fans around the world, but it’s his work off the court which has really cemented his status in the sport and beyond.
In 2017, after he had ended his season early due to the hip injury which would ultimately end his career, he staged an exhibition match in Glasgow, playing against Federer, raising £70,000 for children’s charities.
He has been a huge supporter of equal rights, which has earned him praise from the icons of the women’s game such as Serena Williams and Billie-Jean King.
The Scot was once asked if he was he was a feminist; his response was “If being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man then, yes.”
He was the first top male player to hire a female coach in Amelie Mauresmo. He discussed the reaction he received for this by bringing equality to the forefront of the discussion.
“I didn’t realise that Amelie would find herself up against such criticism and prejudice. The staggering thing was that she was slated every time I lost, which is something my former coaches never ever experienced. It wasn’t right.”
As soon as Murray confirmed his impending retirement in Australia, tributes poured in from his colleagues and rivals.
King tweeted: “You are a champion and off the court…Your voice for equality will inspire future generations.”
Heather Watson, his doubles partner at the Olympics in Rio, said: “I know all of us girls in the locker room are in awe and so grateful for how you always fight our corner! Thank you so much for that. You inspire me in so many ways.”
Nadal, his rival all the from childhood, tweeted: “Congrats @andy_murray for all your achievements all these years. It was great to play against you all these years. Good luck with everything!”
The talented but wayward Nick Kyrgios was quietly mentored by Murray, who saw past his bad boy antics on court, and the Aussie paid heartfelt tribute on Instagram.
‘In tennis, it is not the opponent you fear, it is failure itself, knowing how near you were but just out of reach’ – Sir Andy Murray.
“You will always be someone that impacted the sport in so many different ways. You took me under your wing as soon as I got on tour and to this day you have been someone I literally just look forward to seeing… I just want you to know that today isn’t only a sad day for you and your team, it’s a sad day for the sport and everyone you’ve had an impact on.”
Murray may feel disheartened as he has watched Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all come back from serious injury lay-offs and return their peak levels. Who knows how many Slam titles he would have won in a time less blessed with amazing talents in the men’s game?
We will never know, but what I will never forget is sitting in a park in Scotland in 2013 watching his final against Djokovic – I used up my whole data plan on my phone in one sitting. The cheers at our work summer party and the unity that you brought to Scotland – and the rest of the UK.
Another memory I’ll have is from a Wimbledon Championships video in which top players are asked how they like to eat strawberries. Stan Wawrinka, Djokovic, Maria Sharapova and Federer all replied “with cream,” but the Scotsman’s bone-dry sense of humour ran through his response of “with my fingers.”
We’ll miss him…
Feature image courtesy of Carine06 via Flickr Creative Commons under licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).