JEEZO, but tennis is tense. I love it but sometimes it’s completely unwatchable. There’s no let-up, and no longeurs like in football while the left-back faffs about. During an epic match I’ll need to get up from my chair several times – leave the room, leave the house. So thank f**k, then for Kim Sears.
Kim it was – the girl with the hair, the one who in times past, showing my age here, would prompt the remark: “That girl’s wearing Harmony hairspray” – who articulated the feelings of all of us about tennis, and especially when it involves her man and our hero, Andy Murray.
“F**king have it you Czech flash f**k!” she is supposed to have shouted during the most seat-squirming moment of Murray’s semi-final against Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open. Briefly, the debate was about girls who swear. Who knew this? I mean, she looks quite posh, or at least well brought-up. What do they get taught at school these days? The novelist Christopher Brookmyre tweeted last week’s best front page (“Kim Swears”) alongside one from the Sex Pistols’ heavily-asterisked heyday and remarked: “In 39 years tabloids have progressed from faux-shock at men swearing to faux-shock at a woman swearing.” But lots of people approved. If you’ve never sworn while watching sport, went one message of support, then you’ve never really watched sport.
“When there’s a lot of tension it’s completely normal,” said Murray when he was asked to explain his fiancée’s outburst. Yes, Andy, but particularly in tennis, particularly in your matches, particularly right now when some are asking if you’ll ever win another major. And particularly when you get caught somewhat sluggishly on your heels, when those big banana feet of yours look like tugs which have gone aground. Or lorries which have jack-knifed off the road. The prog-rock group ELP used to have one artic each for all their gear with their names on the roof. We could call Andy’s wallopers “Emerson” and “Lake”.
But, come on, there was only one moment like this at Melbourne Park, a footnote as it were of when Andy gave a pretty good bedheaded impersonation of a student who missed all his lectures and ate Sugar Puffs for every meal. At all other times last Thursday he was brilliant. The best since he won Wimbledon in 2013.
If he takes his third major today it will be his greatest achievement. Why? Because winning one was incredible and making Wimbledon his second was like some atom-cracking miracle which proved that as a tennis nation we didn’t have to be famous only for strawberries, Sir Clifford of Richard’s singsongs and scurrying rain-cover lackeys – and in a sense there’s no real reason why he needs to go for a third because he’s already Scotland’s if not Britain’s greatest living sportsman, maybe the greatest of them all. But Murray, Ol’ Juggernaut Feet, has no truck with this.
Why? Because of the back injury and recovery from surgery which disrupted his 2014 and had some doubting his ability to get back to where he was, or his will to do so. Because he’d won with Ivan Lendl and suddenly the Czech – who never smiled once all through his own playing career but who turned out to be a funny guy and great for Andy on those killer points which separate the men from the boys who turn into tennis commentators – wasn’t his coach anymore and this was so obviously a disaster. And because Lendl’s successor Amélie Mauresmo took a lot of criticism, directly and indirectly, for his dip in form and Murray stuck by her.
And here’s another thing, which I’m reluctant to mention because to do so would be to give it credence but it’s so preposterous that you might be amused: there’s a conspiracy theory out there somewhere that 19 months ago in SW19 Novak Djokovic let Murray beat him.
Why? In the spirit of this lunatic idea I suppose you might wonder if handing our man the odd title is part of a fiendish plot by the cunning Serb. Slams for Murray confirm a four-way battle for supremacy rather than just Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Four means it’s the greatest rivalry in the history of any sport at any time. Greater than Ayrton Senna vs Alain Prost or Jack Nicklaus vs Tom Watson. Ultimately finish on top of such a heap – Djoko’s aim – and you’re entitled to call yourself God Almighty.
Nonsense, of course. Just like the nonsense about Murray being anti-English or humourless or too likely to use the wrong fork at dinner to ever be champion. But sometimes this elite club of tennis superstars can appear almost too polite and cosy, like a mutual admiration society identifiable by their wonderful calf muscles and limited-edition watches. How some of us longed for a bit of good, old-fashioned needle in a tennis match. Thursday provided and Kim Swears obviously enjoyed it too.
There was swearing and stare-downs. There was ball-biting and a hint of barging at the changing of ends (shades of Boris Becker as a truculent teen or Kevin Curren). None of this was tennis etiquette but, frankly, who cares about that now? Just because Downton Abbey is a hit show doesn’t mean we’re all yearning for a return to the days of deference.
The timing of such a match could not have been better for Murray and you wondered, as he kept glancing at the strategy notebooks in his big bag, if he’d contrived it. He couldn’t have contrived that first-set cock-up as well, could he, just to hype himself up for today even more? No, he can be a perverse player at times – he’s Scottish after all – but that would really be stretching things.
What we can say for sure is that he’s stretching himself all over the court, on a surface he loves, moving with a panther’s prowl, mixing up the shots quite superbly. Djoko will have scribbled in his notebooks how Murray in his semi hit every ball of the second set so early which befuddled his opponent, but Andy can counter whatever his friend and rival will do, mix it up some more. He’s got the shots and, despite appearances, he’s got the feet.
Truly, they look like the feet of the ever-elongating nephew who’s grown every time you see him, who seems to grow some more during the afternoon of his visit. Murray told me once that his feet, and the lolloping legs to which they’re attached, held him back in other aspects of his life. “I can’t swim,” he announced, to the astonishment of his mother Judy who was present. “I mean, I can just about stay afloat but my body’s L-shaped in the water. A lot of my weight is in my legs and there’s hardly any fat on them so they sink right down. That’s how I swim, or try to swim. Bit like a seahorse.” Today he just needs to get Emerson moving, Lake too. This isn’t a swimming contest and nor is it a politeness contest.