The Cult of Andy Murray

Andy Murray carried the weight of British expectation for more than a decade, without ever really capturing the people's hearts. But he didn't seem to care – and that makes him prime cult material.

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11 January 2019, 9:56am

Illustration: Dan Evans

This article was originally published on VICE Sports in 2016. We are reposting it on VICE today after Andy Murray revealed his plan to retire because of a hip injury so bad that he sometimes struggles to put on his own socks and shoes. Godspeed, Andy Murray, the first British player since 1977 to win a Grand Slam singles tournament, and the first British man to win multiple Wimbledon singles titles since Fred Perry in 1936.

Cult Grade: Mould Breaker

Tim Henman has been on Centre Court for what seems like an eternity. Fans, dressed in their most-ironed shirts and hospital-wall-coloured trousers, are waiting. Bodies perch on seat edges and hands cover pints of Pimm's, pots of fruit salad, faces. They have been waiting forever; at this point – the 8th of July, 2001 – the distance between Henman and destiny seems the shortest it has ever been. Wimbledon's champion-in-waiting. Opposite Henman is Goran Ivanisevic, perennial recipient of the wooden spoon, everyone's favourite plucky loser. Henman is leading; he is, across the two days, always in front. And then he isn't. Henman, who is English and therefore entitled to this trophy, will never feel this close to glory again. And neither will England.

This is a story we all know well: the Englishman's doomed attempt to capture a modicum of old glory, to prove that England is still the centre of the world. For a decade, Henman became centre of that world for just under two weeks each year. Never has an English failure been as close to perfect as Tim Henman. He was the archetype: a person so similar to the artist's idea of what an Arthurian Failure should be that all that could be done to follow him was to break the mould.

And so the artist created a new hero for England. One who was better in every sense than Henman; one who would stare national failure in the face while giving it a two-finger salute.

The only problem? He was Scottish.

Point of Entry: High

The number is 77. That's what people said. Seventy-seven years of hurt. Seventy-seven years since a British man became Wimbledon champion. That is, in my opinion, a gross disservice to history. When Andy Murray lifted the Wimbledon trophy on the 7th of July, 2013, it brought to a close the story of a name and a city 306 years in the making.

It was 1707 when, after a bout of drinking and debate, Scottish noblemen sold the country's sovereignty to England over a bribe. Or so the nationalists argue. The Act of Union, however, also created something other than two Kingdoms in alliance: it created the very concept of Britishness. Before that, the nation was fractured and divided, more Game of Thrones than Downton Abbey. Due to this schism, tennis, as a leisure activity, was in decline. The violence placed the game on the fringes of an ideological struggle between who was the rightful ruler of the country: Prince William III of England, or James II of Scotland. Who had the right to play the Game of Kings? Scotland or England?

Resistance always follows formation of Empire, and it was Clan Murray – most notably William Murray and George Murray, both fiercely against the Acts of Union and "Britishness" – who fought in the Jacobite rebellions against the English crown until 1745. By then, Scotland's maritime trading system had failed and left the country economically incapable of continuing the fight. William Murray was taken to the Tower of London, where he died in 1746 of natural causes (or so they say). England would continue to rule the courts – of both varieties.

Wimbledon was formed 131 years later, during the pomp of Empire. For the first 32 years, only two non-Englishmen won the tournament: both were Irish. It was only when the Open Era began (and England's Imperialism faded in the shadow of the Cold War) that England lost its grip on what was, by all accounts, more a celebration of Englishness than a sporting competition. After many, many years of learning that other nations could produce fantastic sportsmen, if they were only allowed to compete, England became desperate. If a public schoolboy from Oxfordshire couldn't do it, who could? Could you even play tennis in Scotland?

England did not want Andy Murray. You only have to look at the media coverage of him early on to see that. He was too dour, they said. He carried rebellion in his very name. And he was so scrawny. And whiny. He didn't even support England in the 2006 World Cup! (Smart move, as it turned out.)

Murray, for his part, didn't seem particularly bothered. He was a natural born winner who fought for sporting equality, called out drug cheats and wrote articles about how much he loved penguins. He even lives in Britain – and pays taxes. Taxes! Most European tennis players live in Monte Carlo to avoid this inconvenient outgoing.

By conquering England, Murray also ended up conquering the world. He is imperious when playing for his country, no matter what is written on his heart. Put Andy Murray in the whites of Wimbledon and Queen's, the British flag of the Olympics, or the Scottish-ish blue of the Davis Cup, and you get seven titles. He is perhaps Britain's first truly national sporting hero, one who is just as likely to be loved in Aberdeen as he is in Guildford. That is a pretty big achievement – and one worthy of Cult status.

The Moment: Murray vs. Djokovic, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, that final game

Andy Murray doesn't adhere to how a tennis player should look. His skin isn't dyed from the sun. Even when it must be, surely, he still appears pale, like his body simply refuses to darken. His hair is not cut short, nor overly long in a sort of 90s surfer-style that a few European players favour. Instead, Murray is more comparable to a llama or a mid-century footballer – a man constantly at war with his own fringes. He is renowned for his on-court outbursts, his fire. But right now, in the final game of the final set of the 2013 Wimbledon final, he exudes calm.

His strengths are variable, almost complete. His backhand is mathematically perfect and his forehand, at its best, propels the ball through his opposition as easily as punching through a paper bag. But by far his greatest strength is speed, both of body and mind. Watching Murray play tennis, especially when he's losing, feels like peering into a really smart kid's bedroom as he figures out how to arrange a Rubik's Cube. Murray often starts slowly – as if every match is his first – but once he works out how to move the reds onto one side of the cube and the blues onto the other, it doesn't take him long to wallop most players on the tour. And then he challenges himself to beat them as fast as possible. It's exhilarating stuff.

Today he has never been losing. He has played shots as if he is choosing them from a loaded deck. His opposition – Novak Djokovic – has played well, but has yet to figure out how to stop Murray.

But we – those who watch Murray like a religion – know that it's never this easy. Murray has a tendency to "check-out", a tennis term that means, to you and I, "take a mental holiday to Ibiza for a bit and see how I feel when I get back."

The score: 6-4, 7-5, 5-4. Murray is serving for the match. He gets to 40-0 up with minimal fuss. Three tournament points. It's over. It's surely over. And then it's deuce. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, sweatily fingers the Scottish saltire hidden beneath his seat.

Murray dumps a forehand into the net. I think, at this point, I'm near death. I've had, what, 12 beers? Murray saves it, but another comes just as fast. This is a scary one: Murray hits a backhand long, too long, surely. We know – our hearts know – that this is it, he's lost it. Entire matches, entire nations, swing on these things. David Cameron licks a damp upper lip. But it isn't long, it isn't – how isn't it? HOW? Djokovic has stopped; he never stops, he's the human equivalent of a perpetual water siphon. Murray saves the break point with a forehand into the cross-court and we all breathe. Surely, this time, but Djokovic – why must it always be him – like a cheese-string peeling itself, stretches to a Murray drop-shot and sends it back for a winner.

Advantage Djokovic. A huge serve saves it. Sometimes, Murray can be kind. And sometimes, history can be, too.

Djokovic returns the next serve wonderfully and gets on top of the rally, hitting hard to both wings. Eventually Murray has to shove up a high ball, which Djokovic can smash for a winner. But Djokovic is weak at smashes. We know this. People who have never seen Djokovic smash before know it. His eyes are like those of a lamb in front of a speeding car as the ball plummets toward his racket, and Djokovic serves up what is essentially the McDonalds 99p cheeseburger of smashes. Murray hits a low backhand cross-court, which Djokovic can only drop back over the net. Murray, who is now contorting every muscle in his body, like a human bullet, powers toward the ball, but he's got there a little too fast. His feet are slipping, gone, and his forehand is softer than he'd like. Djokovic is there, he's moving his racket to it, he's got it, it's over. Another advantage. The crowd is already sighing, but the ball doesn't come back. The ball drops at the net. The ball sets up tournament point for Andy Murray.

Huge onto the backhand. Djokovic, at full stretch – he wasn't expecting it – puts a one-hand backhand up into the air, anywhere, to get it back. Only Djokovic could do that. Murray's forehand right into Djokovic. Djokovic – barely able to get his second hand on his racket – cuts a backhand into the net. Andy Murray has won Wimbledon. I think I start to cry at midnight in a pizza place in Finsbury Park.

@MrDavidWhelan

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