Spectator sport

Spectator sport: Why Andy Murray may be the greatest sportsman Britain has produced

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

There’s nothing we old folk like more than a chat about how poorly all our friends and acquaintances are. This is because, as anyone who understands the complex workings of the universe knows, there is only a certain amount of ill health to go round and the more it lands on someone else, the better our chances of dodging a bullet. It’s the same with tennis: there’s only a certain number of classic matches available for any one tournament.

At this year’s Wimbledon the tennis gods poured all the juice into the wondrous Djokovich/Del Potro semi-final, which was one of most thrilling, athletic and noble sporting contests I have ever seen. Its full magnificence was slightly lost in the euphoria over Murray’s subsequent passage to the final with victory over the hulking Jerzy boy. But the tennis deities are implacable, which meant that the final, epochal and historic as it was, could never be a great match. It was disjointed and lacked the ebb and flow of the greatest games.

Djokovich, charming as ever, was slightly under par, but he is such a gent he would never say anything even if he’d been up all night with gastroenteritis, had dislocated his shoulder and been chucked by his girlfriend. ‘The better man won, well played Andy,’ he would say — and indeed he did.

This was an extraordinary victory for Murray, but not at all unexpected. He is imperiously the best player in the world (bar one). In the last four Grand Slams he has entered, he has appeared in the final of all of them, winning two. He has transformed his body, and now, thanks to Ivan Lendl, his mind. In the end nothing would stand in his way. To me, Murray is one of the two greatest sportsmen Britain has ever produced, the other being Sir Roger Bannister. But Bannister had his team of brilliant middle distance athletes backing him up, and he was part of a long continuum of British distance running. Murray has done it all on his own.

Look at it this way: the superhumanly coiffured Fernando Verdasco, Murray’s five-set opponent in the quarter-finals, was then rated the ninth-best tennis player in Spain. The nearest rated British player to Murray is well outside the top 200. The Scotsman’s solitary achievement in scaling these sporting heights is breathtaking and he deserves any and every honour the British state throws at him, though hopefully not too soon.

Having spent most of the last two weeks in a hospital room, I watched a great deal of Sky’s warm-up to the climax of the Lions tour, which consisted mainly of running Living with the Lions, the film of the 1997 tour to South Africa, on a more or less continuous loop. The fact that I could watch the match itself in some comfort is thanks entirely to the brilliance of my surgeon, Parthi Srinivasan at London Bridge hospital, who is widely regarded as the Leigh Halfpenny of his field, not because of his skill with the place kick, but because he is sheer perfection in the operating theatre. My  eternal gratitude to him and his staff.

But the ’97 Lions film is like something from another age, the age before science kidnapped sport, before Dave Brailsford at Sky Pro Cycling, and the development of marginal gains, before Moneyball, metrics, physios, shrinks, and dieticians. The pre-match meetings all seemed fabulously unsubtle: ‘This is all about the jersey, just get fucking stuck in, just fucking boss them.’ It can’t still be like that, can it? Does Pep Guardiola give team talks like that? I honestly don’t know. But maybe it is all about the jersey, and always will be. It certainly was in Sydney. So, what’s the German for ‘Let’s be having you’?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • dinahmurray@gmail.com

    Thank you for the tennis comments! I’ve been waiting to see an honest report that reflected how brilliant the Del Potro/ Djokovich match had been – one of the greatest I’ve ever seen in more than five decades of watching, and beautifully summed up by you – and pointed out that the final was nothing like as good, even though like you I acknowledge the heroic struggle and Murray triumph with huge joy.

  • Josef Bouska

    With due respect, sir, it’s obvious how easily do Britons forget about the greatness of Coe, Moore, Charlton, Redgrave, Faldo, or Lennox Lewis. Andy Murray is not even best in his sport, and his achievements in tennis so far place him among the likes of Johan Kriek, Sergi Bruguera or Yevgeni Kafelnikov – good company, indeed, but hardly the stuff of legends. If he reaches #1 and wins some 4-5 Grand Slam tournaments more, then it could be discussed, I guess.