Murray’s legacy: Don’t let the grass grow under our feet

Andy Murray takes a break at the Wimbledon practice courts yesterday. Picture: Adam Davy/PA
Andy Murray takes a break at the Wimbledon practice courts yesterday. Picture: Adam Davy/PA
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Breath is being held and fingers crossed across the land in the hope that a bothersome hip eases and, at 1pm tomorrow, Sir Andy Murray is well enough to stride on to the pristine green of Centre Court for a second time in his career as the defending men’s Wimbledon singles champion.

It has been said for some years now that “we must make the most of this” as Britain, and Scotland in particular, are treated to the long awaited joy of having a multiple Grand Slam champion and world No 1 tennis player.

Murray is now 30 and, as much as it seems hard to contemplate at a time when he still, despite an indifferent start to 2017, sits proudly at the top of the world rankings, he is probably entering the twilight period of his time at the top. There are exceptions, but most elite tennis careers begin their downward trajectory in the early 30s as the long years of sweat and toil take their inevitable toll. The phenomenon that is Roger Federer may still be playing at Grand Slam champion level at 35, but he has enjoyed a more blessed run in terms of injuries during his unprecedented career and Murray is a different beast on court to the Swiss maestro.

The Scot is a more defensive and attritional player and those gruelling, seemingly endless long rallies, which can be the most agonisingly heart-stopping spectacles in sport, will only get harder.

The big question is, for all the “we must make the most of this” talk, has there been any action to back it up?

Okay so Fred Perry won eight majors to Murray’s current three back in the 1930s but the debate about the Scot being undisputably Britain’s greatest ever tennis player was settled long ago. The debate now would be if he is possibly Britain’s greatest ever sportsman. He has won two Wimbledons, two Olympic golds, a US Open and Davis Cup, along with that ascent to world No 1 status he achieved with victory over Novak Djokovic in the ATP Tour Finals in London at the end of last year.

A three-time BBC Sports Personality of the Year and knight of the realm, the interest in him is huge all year round but it is naturally heightened over Wimbledon fortnight – one of the glittering jewels in the crown of the British sporting year.

If Murray’s fitness holds and the victories begin to roll, tennis will briefly replace the afternoon horse racing and evening football on pub TVs and kids will flock to tennis courts, inspired by watching the national hero, and some might even be lucky enough to get some decent time on them.

In many parts of Scotland there will simply be none to play on, in others the first experience of the game will come on pebble-strewn, potholed, saggy-netted tarmac – not a recognised surface you would see on the pro circuit.

Outside of those two weeks of Wimbledon fever, much of the interest will fade and then vanish completely into the long gloom of a Scottish winter.

Andy’s mother, Judy Murray, has long expressed her frustration that no indoor public courts have been built in Scotland since her youngest son turned professional in 2005. The only exception is the conversion of a building at the exclusive Gleneagles Hotel for guests, corporate days and private lessons, but also with some public pay and play opportunities.

Beyond that, the cold facts are that of the 112 current indoor courts in the country, only 37 are open the public, with the bulk part of private clubs like David Lloyd and Virgin Active, making playing tennis for most of the year either an expensive or a devilishly elusive pastime to pursue.

On Friday, the Lawn Tennis Association, Tennis Scotland and Sportscotland invited clubs, parks, local government, volunteers, coaches and businesses across the country to register their interest to bid for shares of a £15 million fund entitled Transforming Scottish Indoor Tennis.

The sizeable investment aims to put Scotland on course to an ultimate goal of doubling the number of indoor courts in Scotland to 225, with all 112 of the new builds, as many as possible in more remote, rural regions of the country, required to have a strong commitment to providing public access.

A quick calculation would put that at just over £130,000 per indoor court. Many of the projects would be multiple court facilities of course but, even still, factoring in purchase of land, legal fees and construction costs, that seems a low sum. As Judy Murray has found, too, with her Park of Weir project, planning issues can also come into play.

But those involved are keen to stress that the doubling of indoor courts is an “aim high” goal which would require more funding down the line. The key is to get moving. The project will provide two-thirds funding, with local authorities, leisure trusts, private clubs or community groups stumping up the rest.

Schemes could range from simple covering of existing outside courts to extending existing multi-sports complexes. Private clubs can apply, as long as the new courts are made public.

It is a belated step forward towards cashing in on that Murray inspiration, which is not simply about producing successors but for the general well-being of a nation that has chronic problems with lack of activity, general health and obesity.

Tennis, if made available, can be a sport played by all ages and both genders at various levels, long into life, that improves fitness and mental well-being in a fun way.

Sportscotland chairman Mel Young said: “There are various motivations around this. If we could produce another Andy Murray that would be incredible, and we do think it will certainly help produce good players.

“But if we can get more kids away from their computer games, running around and having a hit with their mates in indoor tennis courts then that would be a good thing in itself.”

Former and current first ministers Alex Salmond – he of the Royal Box saltire stunt – and Nicola Sturgeon have been quick to latch on to the Murray bandwagon with tweets and courtside appearances, but an injection of badly needed funds on this scale has been a while coming.

It is undoubtedly a welcome development but when asked if it has taken too long and if the glory years of Murray have been wasted, Sportscotland’s Young said: “Has time been wasted? Possibly. But I can only focus on the now.

“This is a huge opportunity with having Andy, [his older brother, doubles player] Jamie and [wheelchair player] Gordon Reid all as three No 1 players in the world recently. The message now would be, come on, the information is up there on the Tennis Scotland website. Get it together and get applying. Hopefully we can bring more money to the table in future and let’s get these facilities built as quickly as possible.

“This is a significant investment. Everybody knows right now in the country that finance is not so easy. So it’s a big commitment. You can go on 
about things that haven’t happened in the past and have that discussion. But let’s not have that Scottish thing of moaning about things, let’s focus on now. It’s positive and it’s exciting. Let’s get on with it.”

Tennis Scotland chairman Blane Dodds said he expects the new courts to start going up from next year. “We’ve had a huge amount of interest already,” he said. “We’re keen on target areas like the Highlands, Borders and Dumfries & Galloway, where indoor provision is particularly sparse and there are projects already at different levels of development right now.

“Is it enough. Is it too late? Well we’ve got to start somewhere and £15m is the biggest investment we’ve ever had in tennis in this country. To get more investment we need to deliver on this.”

Dodds revealed that Judy Murray had been involved in the process of pulling things together. This comes as no surprise as the mother of Andy and three-time Grand Slam doubles champion and former world No 1 Jamie has been tireless in her efforts to get Scotland to make the most of her sons’ exploits.

In a wide-ranging interview in today’s sports section, Jamie describes his mother as “a one-man-band right now” who “needs the backing of government”.

Jamie continues: “It’s sad when I think of the amount of hours and effort that she’s putting in to try to make the most of what we’ve been doing on the court and I kind of feel like in a way she wasting her time – I mean, she’s not, obviously – but in a way I feel like she is.

“And that hurts me because I know how much she wants to do it and make a difference. But the thing is, you have to do it now while we’re current because people forget.”

Judy remains hopeful of creating Scotland’s first purpose-built tennis and golf facility, a £70m centre at Park of Keir, outside the Murrays’ hometown of Dunblane.

Turned down by Stirling Council’s planning committee after objections from local residents it went to a public inquiry and is now with the Planning and Appeals Division of the Scottish Government, with a decision hoped for soon.

The facility would provide public, turn up and play courts and, Judy envisages, the perfect place to train up an army of coaches who will be needed to support the desired upswing in national participation across all ages.

Getting more girls and women into active sport has been a key goal for some time and, while this can be problematic in some games, tennis has many key advantages.

While women’s football and rugby have come on in leaps and bounds, they remain firmly in the shadows of the men’s games. Women’s tennis certainly doesn’t suffer from lack of exposure, gaining pretty much equal coverage and prize money and the top female players are effectively the Ed Sheeran of the highest paid women in sport charts, taking the lion’s share of spots.

Judy has been leading the way in trying to get more girls and women into the sport through her Miss-Hits and She Rallies schemes and an increase in indoor courts can only help further the ambition.

She has spent years dedicated to her sons’ tennis careers, wider coaching roles including a stint as GB Fed Cup captain, and countless hours working on tennis-promoting projects, including long journeys in a van to all parts of the country in an attempt to introduce the sport she loves to kids who might otherwise never be given an opportunity.

In an interview with yesterday’s The Scotsman Magazine she revealed that she is, deservedly, enjoying a bit more time to herself these days, shopping and having fun with her grandkids and friends. Her desire to continue to grow tennis in Scotland remains undimmed, however.

The efforts have been truly Herculean, but she needs help. While she will gladly offer her skill and experience and work to bring people and organisations together, she can’t physically build the facilities so badly needed.

The question is, why has it been left to Judy Murray to carry so much of the burden? Scotland’s sporting landscape remains stoically dominated by football, which at club and national level has produced as much cringe as Murray has joy to the country in recent years. When the state-of-the-art £33m Oriam centre was built at Heriot-Watt University, including Europe’s biggest indoor football centre, courts were built over to make way but, so far, tennis is not included in the new building.

If tennis is viewed as an inaccessible, middle class sport, where it is fine to cheer on “Our Boy” but not take much of an interest beyond that, then providing wider accessibility to give the sport a go in an affordable, unstuffy environment has to be the way forward. And quickly.

The incredible Andy Murray story has a few glorious chapters left to be written, though it is hard to imagine any will top that intoxicating, baking July Sunday back in 2013 when the lad from Dunblane hauled himself over the line in that epic final game against Djokovic to end the 77-year wait for a British men’s singles Wimbledon champion.

It was arguably the greatest ever moment in Scottish sporting history. Scotland has been a sharply divided country over the past few years as a result of the ubiquitous independence debate – something that even Murray didn’t quite manage to escape.

He has, however, been a unifying source of national pride over these turbulent years, often of the protective kind in the face of some less than appreciative noises further south. There is little doubt that we haven’t, up until now, made anything approaching the most of him in terms of building a legacy of facilities and opportunity. His own mother and older brother have made that clear in no uncertain terms.

It is not too late, however, with a bit of competence and urgency in delivering this new £15m indoor courts project to salvage something out of this magnificent, golden era of Scottish tennis.