Strictly’s Judy Murray back on the court

Tennis coach Judy Murray. Picture: Getty Images
Tennis coach Judy Murray. Picture: Getty Images
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JUDY Murray loved the fake tan and the sparkle of Saturday night TV, but now she’s back doing what she does best – coaching the sporting stars of the future

In a cavernous sports hall in the east end of Glasgow Judy Murray is in her element. Surrounded by teenagers wielding tennis racquets and balls, she takes her place among them, slighter than many and shorter than most. She demonstrates a volley, showing them how to hold the racquet, where to position themselves. They are rapt. She is confident, clear, totally at ease. They do some practice shots and she is full of encouragement – high fives are dished out liberally and after one particularly pleasing rally she attempts to fist bump the boy she’s partnered with. He goes for a high five instead then looks furiously embarrassed, but she’s already moved on, shouting out instructions for the next exercise.

All around the hall dozens of teenagers are trying their hand at new sports – judo, gymnastics, boxing. It’s part of the BBC Get Inspired Active Academy. Some appear pretty well practised – one girl in pale pink boxing gloves looks like a contender to be the next Nicola Adams. Others, not least a boy in the yoga class who gamely wobbles through a one-legged pose, look like they might be paying the price tomorrow but are too young and gallus to realise.

“I love it,” Judy Murray says, sitting in a fitness studio an hour or so later. Dressed all in black, a parka over her sports gear to keep out the chill, the only nod to her recent brush with Strictly Come Dancing glamour are her perfectly manicured nails, painted metallic silver. “I’m just a teacher. I say that a lot, but it’s true, I’m just a teacher. I happen to teach tennis and that’s what I love doing.” We are sitting on two folding chairs we purloined from the big hall next door and are using a bit of fitness kit as a makeshift coffee table on which two plastic cups of water and my voice recorder sit. I feel I should push it nearer to Murray because her voice is so quiet I fear that despite no other background noise, I will hardly hear a word. The contrast with the voice I heard leading the coaching session is striking. Murray may not blink at the thought of keeping the attention of 20-odd 16-year-olds, but one on one, her nerves are palpable.

Since Murray left Strictly on the back of a Viennese waltz in Blackpool’s famed Tower Ballroom, there’s been a flurry of interviews and public appearances, not least Murray looking resplendent in feather-trimmed tartan at last week’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards. There has been talk of a transformation, that Murray has somehow emerged like a butterfly from a haze of spray tan, sequins and eau d’Anton du Beke. But it’s not that simple. There has been a change, but it wasn’t heralded by that famous Strictly music. It didn’t start in a training room as she learned the samba, but in Murray’s own world, the tennis world, and it’s far from over. In fact, I’d suggest it’s only just beginning.

But before we talk tennis – that is what Murray really wants to talk about – let’s consider what it is to dance in front of nearly 10 million people on a Saturday night. She smiles. “It was about fun. And about being a huge fan of the show. For me, it was just a brilliant experience and I’m really glad that I did it.”

I feel relieved to hear her saying that because, despite the larks backstage, Murray didn’t have the easiest time on the dance show. She brought all the willingness and pluck that sports people always bring, but she was not a natural dancer – the heels hurt her back, the routines took a long time to learn and comments from the judges were harsh. “I’d watched the show for long enough to know how it works,” is how she bats away my interest in whether those stinging comments really did hurt. And although I believe her, it’s also clear that Murray is all about dedication, working hard and improving so no matter the easy assurances, I feel certain that it niggled that she just wasn’t better at it. The compensations, though, are clear. She loved getting to know a whole load of new people and she loved her partner. She’s getting ready to head back to rehearse group dances for the Christmas shows and she’s genuinely excited. “I can’t wait to have everybody back together. On the very first day, the girl contestants created a Whatsapp group and it’s been the best thing for all of us. You don’t see each other apart from on Friday and Saturday so that meant we could share our aches and pains and moans and groans and our highs and lows. We’ve become a really close group.”

Do they still talk?

“Oh god yeah, this morning has been non stop,” she says. “One of the girls is opening in panto tonight in Peterborough so we sent group flowers. She’s nervous but she knows we’re all there behind her, supporting her.

“I went to the Cosmopolitan Awards last week but I went with Pixie [Lott] and Frankie [Bridge] and Caroline [Flack]. We were all doing something different – I was presenting the sports award, Caroline was presenting another award, Frankie was receiving an award and Pixie was singing – but we were there together and we’re great pals.” She smiles. “I am miles older than them but because I’ve worked with younger people I never have any issue hanging out with them. I’ve loved that side of it.”

The other part of Strictly she got “really lucky” with was her partner, du Beke. They got on like a house on fire basically because he made her laugh all day long as they trained. She’s going to dance with him again on three dates in his Scottish tour next year. “He said, ‘the only thing you have to remember, partner, is when we dance in the studio it’s a huge space, when we dance in the Usher Hall it’s a small space and there’s a stage with a drop’. So I told him he’s not to let me do anything where he doesn’t have a hold of me. He’s been well warned.”

I can’t be the only person who nurtures a fantasy that all Strictly contestants fall in love with dancing and keep doing it once the show is over. Some definitely do – Deborah Meaden did and Tom Chambers makes a career out of dancing now - but Murray’s less convinced. “I don’t know if I would or not,” she says. “The problem with my life is that I’m always on the go, I’m hardly ever in one place for any length of time. If I was then I may well do. What I did really enjoy was just the whole exercising to music thing so Zumba classes or salsa classes, I could see myself doing that.”

She might not be a dance convert, but she is experiencing a different kind of recognition after taking part in the show. People used to stop her to ask about Andy or Jamie, now they want to know about her. “You do realise just how popular it is and how big a reach it has,” she says. As to whether she enjoys being recognised she says that everyone has been friendly so it’s been fine and there’s another aspect that appeals to her too. “If it makes me more recognisable and I can use that to grow my sport then that’s a good thing.”

With two sons with Wimbledon titles to their names, a role as captain of the Fed Cup women’s team and as founder of the Tennis on the Road scheme, for which she’s bagged three years funding support from RBS, it shouldn’t be surprising that Murray is passionate about tennis, but it sort of is. Why? Maybe it’s because we know of her connection to the sport mainly through her support of her sons from the stand. And that’s not to be underestimated, but it’s not the whole story. Murray has played tennis since she was a child. She was a top player in Scotland long before she had her own children. She started coaching when her boys were toddlers and the family moved back to Dunblane from Glasgow, meaning she had to leave her tennis club. She’s now coached for 26 years. You only need to see her in action to know that this is what she loves to do. “Four days after I was bumped off Strictly, I was back in my van doing Tennis on the Road in East Lothian,” she says, smiling. “I just jumped back into what I normally do.”

This is the real change in Murray. She’s discovered a new confidence in her own role and experience. She’s no longer just Andy and Jamie’s mum, although her pride in and love of her boys is absolutely clear, she’s now beginning to speak in her own right. And she’s got a lot to say.

So how does she explain it?

There are two factors, she says. One was being named the Fed Cup captain. “It gave me a lot of confidence that somebody gave me a big role because I was a good coach, whereas before so much of it was about being Andy and Jamie’s mum, when I had always worked with a lot more kids than my own.”

The other factor that had a massive impact on her sense of self-confidence was Andy winning his grand slam titles. “There was a time when I was coming in for a lot of criticism and it was always from people who didn’t know me, didn’t know anything about me.” She’s too polite to name him, but the obvious although not the only culprit, is Boris Becker, who said (erroneously) that Andy would never win while Judy was sitting in the stands watching him. “It irritated me, it was annoying. I didn’t react, I just got on with it but I definitely had the sense that there were people out there who thought he wasn’t getting to the very top because of something I’d done, or the way I behaved, or the way I was.”

It takes me a moment to register the full weight of what she’s saying. And the gross unfairness of it is galling. Murray, though, is measured. “Those people didn’t realise that over the years I’d hardly go to any tournaments. I only went to the ones where the boys needed most emotional support and that’s no different to any other parents or families. But it was that female thing, that mum with boys thing.” She shrugs, but it’s clear that it hurt and that it has had an impact. What a scandal to even have to justify her behaviour when her sons have achieved such extraordinary things. She smiles. “I never used to talk about it, but I do now because they’ve done what they’ve done – they’ve both got Wimbledon titles and they did it from a country where there was no tennis.”

Her voice is still quiet, but it’s clear that Murray knows not only exactly what she’s talking about but also what needs to change. “When I was playing tennis, which is obviously many moons ago, there was literally next to no coverage in the Scottish national media because we had no profile, no big players, no events. Since Andy, Jamie, Elena Baltacha, Colin Fleming, these guys have all played Davis Cup, Fed Cup, the Olympics, Slams. Andy in particular is on telly a lot, he’s a contender for the major events, he’s won them, so everybody is aware of tennis up here so it’s a perfect opportunity for the sport to grow. But in order for it to do that we need a bigger, stronger, more productive workforce. And we need more places to play.”

That’s why she has submitted a planning application for a tennis and golf centre at Park of Keir, between Dunblane and Bridge of Allan, which will include six indoor and six outdoor courts as well as a six-hole golf course. The proposal is facing local opposition, but has been amended to reflect concerns. “For me to have a base that I can work from…” she says. “I’ve got so much to share. I want it as a community centre, I’m not talking about a centre of excellence because we’ve got one of those at Stirling Uni. But if I’m somewhere that coaches and players can come then we can run competitions and coach conferences and roadshows. There are so many things that we could do but I feel if we don’t do something like that we could completely miss the boat with all this profile that’s around tennis at the moment.” Does she really have a sense of that danger? “There is a huge sense of it with me because I’m out there and I know what’s happening or rather what’s not happening. Andy has been in the top five for seven years now and in that whole time we’ve had two new indoor courts. That’s all we’ve had. But I’m only one person, I can only do so much.”

She sounds a little deflated perhaps, definitely frustrated, but there’s a streak of grittiness in there too. The similarity between her sons and her is becoming ever clearer. She laughs. “When I put my mind to something I want to do it well. I just wish people were a bit more ambitious about tennis possibilities.”

For years she’s stayed quiet about the issues in sport that have frustrated or concerned her. She didn’t think it was her place to comment. Frankly, she was nervous about speaking up, about what response she might face. No more. “I never used to talk about it but I’ve started to now because I’m more involved in Women in Sport. Also I realised that the LTA is one of the wealthiest governing bodies in sport, it has a huge budget and a huge workforce and yet it achieves very little.”

You might think with two tennis star sons, the younger of whom is now the owner of a luxury hotel in Scotland – Cromlix, Dunblane – who is presumably in the process of planning his upcoming wedding to Kim Sears, Judy Murray might have things other than tennis on her mind. After all, she did say that one of the best things about Strictly was the fact that no-one spoke to her about the sport for months. But it doesn’t seem so. Murray is a woman with a plan and newly discovered self-belief. Her old maxim – if you want something done, do it yourself – has never felt more achievable.

“If you’d asked me to do any of this four or five years ago, I wouldn’t have,” she says simply. “I wouldn’t have sat and spoken about what I’ve done, I just wouldn’t have.”

Recently, though, someone told Murray that when you’ve got a voice you have to be brave enough to use it because you won’t always have one. “I thought, that’s absolutely right. So I made myself do some things. Women in Sport and getting kids active and growing the game in Scotland, those are my things, they’ll keep me busy for a few years until I get my tennis centre.” She smiles. “I don’t want to just talk about things, I want to do them. I’ve always worked hard and I always will and I think that’s been good for my kids. They see me out and about, up and down the country. I get stuck in because I love what I do and I want things to be better. I won’t change now.”

• When Mel met Judy – Mel Giedroyc in conversation with Judy Murray, Christmas Day, BBC Radio Scotland, 7pm