Murray can never top history he made on 7 July but challenge is to build on it, says Alix Ramsay
IT WAS the number of votes that told the story. As Andy Murray romped to the Sports Personality of the Year award last Sunday night, there was no one to touch him. More than 700,000 people voted and 56 per cent of them backed the Scot. More than 700,000 people voted and 56 per cent of them backed the Scot.
Not only did he win, he amassed more votes than all the other nominees put together – and by a healthy 85,486 margin. Murray’s achievements this past year mattered to the sports watching people of Britain; they mattered like never before.
It is true that people like tennis, they watch tennis with interest, but the world is truly obsessed by football. And yet for two weeks every year, that same world revolves around a small patch of grass in south-west London. Wimbledon is not just a tennis tournament, it is an institution. It is the very heart of the sport and it is the one title every player sets his or her heart on winning. As a nation, we are justifiably proud of this magnificent event but for 77 years we had not produced a male winner, not until Murray beat Novak Djokovic on a blisteringly hot afternoon on 7 July.
Just to put that in context, 77 years ago, World War II was still three years away, Edward VIII was giving up his day job in favour of life with Mrs Simpson and the Spanish Civil War was just beginning. For more than three-quarters of a century, Britain had waited for someone to get his hands on the trophy and with every passing year, the pressure on the home-bred hopefuls became greater and more intense.
When Murray won the US Open in 2012, he said it came as a relief. At last he had won a grand slam, he had broken through and achieved his lifetime goal. As for Wimbledon, he always said that it was the lead-up to the event that was the trouble – media commitments, sponsors’ requests and the like – but once the tournament started and the public started cheering, it was not too bad. But Murray was being economical with the truth.
From having three championship points on his racket strings in that historic final, Murray was drawn into a battle royal as Djokovic fought back. Suddenly the Scot was facing three break points and as he gulped down the stifling Centre Court air, he saw that his hands were shaking. This was his moment and he had to take it and take it now. As Djokovic dumped a final backhand into the net, Murray’s roar of victory could be heard all the way back to Dunblane. He had done it. He was the Wimbledon champion. All the fear and anxiety was gone and the terrible weight of history had been lifted. Murray was the first British man since 1936 to hold the trophy.
“I know I’m never going to play in that much sort of panic, stress, excitement ever again in my career,” the new champion said, “and I’m really, really happy about that because it was tough. Those last few points, I was really struggling to breathe. I was just so tense.
“I just know that I will never top that. Whatever I do now, I won’t have that same pressure, that same expectation, that same, I don’t know, release after the match.”
Murray does not have to top that – you cannot top history – but he can build on it. Since his back surgery in October, a “minor” procedure (as his management team called it) to cure a long-standing problem, he has been working hard in Miami to be ready for the new season. Now, thanks to that Wimbledon victory, his mind is free of all the pressure and expectations that go with being a British tennis player at a major event and as a result of the surgeon’s expertise, he believes his body will be free to let him play at his very best.
“I hope I’ll be able to play better than before because for a couple of years, there’s been shots that I couldn’t hit any more,” he said shortly after the surgery.
In a few weeks’ time, Murray will face his first major test at the Australian Open. He will be a bit ring rusty but he will be mentally far fresher than Messrs Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, his main rivals. A year ago, Murray proved that he had the skill and the physical wherewithal to win major titles but this past summer he showed that he has the mental strength to overcome the sort of pressure that no other player will ever have to face. At 26, he is in his pomp and, after his achievements in 2013, anything seems possible.