Judy Murray learned to hide her emotions while watching Jame and Andy reach the top of world tennis but now the coach and passionate advocate for sport speaks out about misogyny in the media, and how Strictly changed her public profile
It’s a remarkable achievement of which Judy Murray can be justifiably proud. No, not managing to raise two tennis champions in a country where there were precious few facilities and support, financial or otherwise, but in turning around the public perception of her as an ambitious, aggressive, she-wolf, snarling and offering fist-pumping support from the stands as her offspring battled their way to the top.
These days the images of Murray that appear in the press are more likely to show her wearing a warm lipsticked smile, funky chalk and charcoal pixie crop and a hand on Anton Du Beke’s thigh. Now that her “boys” have reached the top, it’s as if Judy can breathe a huge sigh of relief, and smile. Murray has achieved this remarkable transformation by hitting the dancefloor on Strictly Come Dancing, chatting amiably in a slew of interviews that have shown her lighter, fun side, and now by telling her story in her autobiography, Knowing The Score.
“I wrote it to share the experiences and all the things I had to learn, with parents, coaches, any woman who works in a man’s world. In the last five years I’ve sort of found my voice. I’ve found my confidence and I enjoy telling the story.”
Not that Murray will be any less focused on the game when she sits down at Wimbledon on Monday, and her inner Judy will no doubt be screaming like a banshee and waving her arms above her head with abandon, but on the outside everything will be cucumber cool as she’s learnt over the years what it is to live in the spotlight.
“Yes I will be at Wimbledon this year,” says Murray, who won’t be drawn on how Andy and Jamie might perform after their contrasting results at Queen’s in the run-up – Andy crashed out in the first round while Jamie won the doubles title – saying simply: “I never make predictions. The strength and depth in the men’s game is incredible but Jamie and Andy will both be contenders in their respective events.”
While Murray will be at Wimbledon, she doesn’t watch them much nowadays. “I got fed up with all the years and years of travelling, 11 months on the road. I don’t go to matches very often now. I started to find in the last two or three years, getting close to the top and then being number ones, it was very stressful watching them, because of the expectation. It’s like the fun and the adventure of the challenge of getting there, and then it’s like… [she exhales, letting off steam].
And when she’s not there in person she’ll do anything rather than tune in and watch them.
“I haven’t watched them on TV for years. I hated listening to the commentators and watching with the sound off isn’t much fun. You feel powerless, so I might go for a swim or if I’m in the house, I don’t answer the phone. I feel sick the whole time they’re playing, whether I’m there or not. It really would be lovely to be able to enjoy it more, but I can’t, unfortunately.”
After Wimbledon, however that turns out, Murray is back in the public eye with her Edinburgh Fringe Festival show In Conversation With Judy Murray and an Edinburgh International Book Festival appearance, Holding Court.
Criticism of Murray’s reaction on the sidelines was always unfair anyway. She’s a former Scottish tennis international and Scottish national coach, and set up the Scottish Development School, that produced four Davis Cup and one Fed Cup players, including Grand Slam-winning sons, Jamie and Andy. She’s lived and breathed tennis her entire life. Throw in a coach’s technical know-how and a parent’s justifiable pride, why shouldn’t she shout and clap? Anyway, Judy Murray has great arms, though she’s not convinced.
“The year the BBC were doing me clapping in slow motion…” she shudders. “I used to clap above my head sometimes because when the kids look up and there’s a big crowd they don’t immediately see you. Anyway I had a vest top on and everything was like wobble, wobble…it doesn’t matter how thin or not you are. It was horrible, horrible!
“But you would never want the boys to know you were upset by it so you just put up with it. So when I got the Fed Cup job in 2011 it was the first time of someone recognising I was a good coach and not just Andy and Jamie’s mum. Then in 2012 Andy started working with Ivan [Lendl] and won the Olympics, the US Open and then Wimbledon the following year, so I probably felt like I was justified, finally, and started to be more confident in talking about the things that had gone into getting him to that stage.”
Does she think the pushy mum label was down to misogyny?
“Yeah, definitely. I got tagged with that early from that first Wimbledon. It was because of that unusual dynamic of the mother/son. All the pictures and stories painted me like I was an ambitious, over-competitive, aggressive, serious, stern, nightmare mother, and that stuck. Nearly all sports photographers are men, nearly all sports journalists are men, nearly all sports editors are men.
“But the worst time by a long way was when Boris Becker wrote that Andy won’t win a Grand Slam until he ditches his mum. I was just going to the shop and there was a billboard outside the newsagent in the main street and it was this whole thing, ditch your mum says Boris Becker. I just turned round and went home and didn’t go out. I just stayed in. Here was someone who was a huge legend of tennis, and many people would think he must know what he’s talking about, but he didn’t know anything about us. Anybody who did would know I don’t travel around the world telling them what to do. I did when they were younger – you have to – but he had a coach, a coaching team. So it was disappointing.”
At the time Murray didn’t have the confidence to respond, but she was able to attempt to explain a couple of years later on Clare Balding’s show.
“I told him exactly how he made me feel,” she says. “And he said, well, he was right because Andy took on Lendl the following year and won a Grand Slam. So I said, but I wasn’t coaching him!
“Anyway… you live and learn, but I think now from doing the Fed Cup job, from Strictly, from my sports programmes, more people have seen what I’m really like… ”
Murray had always been a fan of Strictly. And she adored every minute of the show, being partnered with Anton Du Beke.
“I loved it. The friends I made from it is the best thing. Jenny O’Carroll [married to Brendan O’Carroll of Mrs Brown’s Boys], the actor Sunetra Sarker, Caroline Flack, Pixie Lott .... And Anton. But I also got a lot of confidence from that as well, learning how to dress up and enjoy it. Make up was never big for me, but I can see how if you know what you’re doing it can transform you, so yeah, I enjoyed that side of it. And it was wonderful to see into another world and have a break from tennis for four months.
“But I found it difficult to learn at 55. I just couldn’t remember things, and as was quite obvious, I’ve never danced before. And it’s not just the dance, it’s dancing in heels, and props and music and lights and a live audience. So it was a huge thing in terms of out of your comfort zone. But I think that’s one of the things the public perhaps liked, that it’s not my world, and having a go at my age.”
Murray is up for new experiences, whatever her age and at 57, has just had her first tattoo, a spider on the back of her neck. She intended it to be hidden, but it turned out the spider had a mind of its own and its legs stick out above the neck of her jumper.
“I wanted it to be a secret but I did an interview last week and the journalist noticed it and suddenly it was the headline and everybody got excited about it for some reason. But yeah, it’s there because of that whole Robert the Bruce thing, if at first you don’t succeed, and you can see it with Andy’s story, Jamie’s story, my story, you just keep going and don’t get derailed.”
Today Murray is happier than she’s ever been, with more time for her friends and a social life, daughters-in-law with whom to enjoy “shopping and musicals and spas, stuff the boys didn’t do,” as well as granddaughter Sophia, who is now one and a half.
But Murray hasn’t finished with tennis yet. For her it was never just about her own kids, but about helping as many others as possible realise their tennis dreams, especially girls. That’s why she set us Miss-Hits for five to eight year olds, and She Rallies for girls and women, plus Tennis On The Road, where she and a colleague fill a van full of equipment and take it to Scotland’s rural and deprived areas. “Over the last four years I’ve been trying to share everything I’ve learned. My philosophy and coaching tools, fun games and exercises for anyone who wants them, parents, kids, coaches, and they’re all free. Parents say I can’t help my child because I can’t play. That’s not true. It’s not that you can’t do it, it’s that you can’t do it yet.
“I started off as a volunteer at Dunblane tennis club when my boys were in nappies to get me out of the house, and that was how I got into it, dreaming up play sessions and competitions and learning how to coach. It grew from there. And as the boys got more successful there was no-one to learn from so I had to find out everything for myself.
“When I was given the opportunity to become the Scottish national coach I was driven by ‘why not here? And I worked my butt off to try and improve things and produce some players and coaches. We started with about 20 kids with no indoor facility, no national centre and ended up with a number of world class players and a couple of world class coaches. So I talk about it now in a way that I never ever talked about it before because I got to the stage where so many people were saying to me when are you going to write a book and share the story?”
Murray’s mantra is don’t think about what you haven’t got, make the most of what you have.
“Yeah, very much. I think with what happened to us living through the Dunblane tragedy, you thought you never know what’s round the corner, so be very grateful for what you have and make the most of every day. That was a huge thing for me then, because it was like I need to keep doing what I’m doing, within our club, within our area, because kids need things to play, they need life to go on.”
This year Murray’s work in tennis was rewarded with an OBE, something she says won’t make much difference to her at all.
“I will still just be out doing what I love doing. I feel very lucky to have been given it for doing something I love doing, but I’ll keep doing what I do. I still have an enormous passion for my sport and an enormous passion for teaching and sharing.”
Looking ahead, Murray is pouring her energy into creating Scotland’s first purpose-built tennis and golf facility, a £70m centre at Park of Keir, outside Dunblane. Turned down by Stirling Council’s planning committee it went to a public inquiry and is now with the Planning and Appeals Division of the Scottish Government.
“We’re still waiting for a decision. It would be a brick and mortar legacy of what we achieved against the odds, in our back yard, somewhere from which I can share the last 25 or so years. And it’s a community thing, a pay and play facility from which I can build a grassroots workforce. Andy and Jamie are role models, but any sport is only as good as its grassroots and grassroots is people.
“I don’t want it to be expensive, so we’ve surrounded it with the six hole starter golf course, football pitch, gym, adventure playground, cafe, so it’s a community based pay and play hub. It’s not a centre of excellence, it’s not like a commercial club, it’s a turn up and pay and play place. So for it to be debt free we need the money from the house plots and the hotel plot to create it. We want it to be an affordable place for families.
“I don’t want my sport to be seen as being just for people who have money. I want it to be anyone can play, anywhere.”
With her sons now 31 and 30, Murray points out that now is the time to capitalise on their fame to grow the grassroots and bring on the next generation.
“They won’t play for ever,” she says.
“No, it’s a great thought for me,” she says. “No stress!”
Murray’s humour comes out in the book when she talks about her parents, the ones who taught her how to play. Her dad, a former professional footballer who reckons he invented ‘topspin’, gave her a competitive edge, while her mother, “who thinks the boys’ success is entirely down to her because if she hadn’t met my dad, they wouldn’t have had me and I wouldn’t have had the boys”, gave her community spirit.”
But don’t be surprised if she’s not sitting next to them at Wimbledon. While Judy has almost perfected courtside cool, her father hasn’t quite managed to keep his body language, and comments under control, while Judy’s brother has been known to pass around a tin of her mother’s shortbread.
“That’s family isn’t it,” she says. “I can’t sit beside them any more. They tut too much and they go ‘oh, bloody hell, double fault’. I’m really uptight when I watch the boys, and your family can annoy you in a way that others don’t. But yeah…” she softens, “They’re always there, through good and bad. They’ll always be there, we’re lucky.”
Knowing The Score: My Family and Our Tennis Story, by Judy Murray, is published by in hardback by Chatto & Windus, £18.99;
Holding Court, part of the This Woman Can series of events, is on Tuesday 15 August, 5pm, Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, £12/£10, (sold out but check for returns).
In Conversation With… Judy Murray, Grand Hall, New Town Theatre, George Street, Edinburgh, Wednesday 16 August, £10, 0131-226 0000