MURRAY makes a swift return to Wimbledon and says an Olympic winner’s medal would be more special than landing a grand slam
The Olympics at the All England Club – to paraphrase Mr Spock, will be Wimbledon, Jim, but not as we know it. No chaps in blazers, no club ties and badges, no sub-committees mucking up the scheduling. There will still be the Centre Court roof, though, and with luck, someone may have worked out how to use it properly by the time the Olympic flame is lit. But this will not be the Wimbledon we know and love with five rings above it.
The only trace of what we have come to expect of tennis in SW19 will come in the shape of the groundstaff. The AELTC may be traditional but they are not daft so no one touches their precious lawns, not even the IOC, LOCOG nor any other part of the alphabet soup that makes up the “Olympic family”. Eddie Seaward and his meticulously trained and vastly experienced boys will protect every blade of grass to the bitter end.
Of course, some things are impossible to change and, just as it has been for the past seven years, the Murray family – all of them – will lead the British charge for success. There is Andy, the sole standard bearer in the men’s singles, Andy and his brother Jamie in the men’s doubles, Colin Fleming (who was coached as a boy by Judy and who will partner Ross Hutchins) in the doubles and Elena Baltacha, another of Judy’s alumni, in the women’s singles and doubles. The three remaining members of Team GB’s tennis squad – Anne Keothavong, Laura Robson and Heather Watson – are all part of Judy’s Fed Cup squad. The Olympic Games may be the biggest festival of international sport in the world but the clan Murray has certainly taken centre stage.
As ever, Andy will carry the weight of national expectation but, as ever, that does not worry him.
His Olympic debut in Beijing was hardly auspicious – he lost in the first round in the singles and went in to lose a bad tempered second round match in the doubles with his brother – but it opened his eyes to the importance of the Games. Boy, did it open his eyes. They were out on stalks as he mixed with the greatest names in sport in the Athletes’ Village. His lifelong pursuit of his first grand slam title has turned the tall, skinny lad from Dunblane into one of the best players in the world. The four grand slam tournaments are the pinnacle of his sport but the Olympics take that pursuit of excellence to another level. To win an Olympic medal is more than being able to beat a Novak Djokovic or a Roger Federer (although, to do that is pretty special wherever it happens). To win an Olympic medal means you have your place in the history of world sport.
“I would say that winning an Olympic gold is bigger than winning a grand slam because everybody knows what an Olympic gold is,” Murray said. “Everybody understands that. Everyone on the street knows about that anywhere you go. Whereas a grand slam – I think most people know what it is but I don’t think everybody does.
“The Olympics is bigger than tennis, bigger than the slams for sure. It’s a huge, huge competition, the biggest sporting competition in the world. It’s just different. There’s no way of adding it up. Within tennis I would say that, when you finish playing, people would probably look at a grand slam before an Olympic gold but, in sporting terms, an Olympic gold is pretty much the ultimate.
“The feeling that you have when you’re on the court is completely different, really. You feel like you’re playing for other people, you feel like you’re playing for your country. I would be desperate to win an Olympic gold. I think either winning a slam or an Olympic gold would be celebrated by, I guess, the nation, but winning an Olympic gold medal is something that belongs to your country as well.”
Baltacha knows all about the Olympic dream. Her father, Sergei, won bronze for the Soviet Union in football at the Moscow Games in 1980 and her mother, Olga, had been selected for the modern pentathlon team. But 32 years ago, Olga had her baby son, Sergei Jr to look after and so could not take up her place. “I think it broke her heart,” Baltacha said. So, when Baltacha learned that she had been given a wildcard to this year’s Games, she was overjoyed.
It was Judy who gave her the news, immediately after her first-round win at Wimbledon and, within seconds, both women were in tears. Judy had campaigned for a second British wildcard in order that Baltacha could compete alongside Keothavong and the Scot could not believe that her greatest dream had come true. The scene was caught by the TV cameras and she knows that she will be just as emotional if ever she sees the replay.
“I think I’ll probably start crying again as soon as I see it,” Baltacha said. “I’ll always remember that. That was when I found out that I’m going to be an Olympian. I still can’t explain what that means to be part of it – you’re talking about the elite people in the whole world who are going to be in one place and doing their sport. Honestly, I can’t explain just what a feeling that is to be part of that.”
When tennis first returned to the Olympics, the top players took some convincing that the Games had a deserving place in their already busy schedules. The winner of the men’s gold in Seoul in 1988 was the unfancied Czech player Miloslav Mecir. Four years later there was another surprise winner when the Swiss Marc Rosset triumphed. Since then, Andre Agassi, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Nicolas Massu and Rafael Nadal have had the gold draped around their neck. This current generation, led by Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion and the newly restored world No.1, are all desperate to represent their country and be a part of the Olympic festival. The fact that this summer, the tennis will be held at Wimbledon just makes the event all the more important to them. Sadly, 2008 champion Nadal will be absent through injury but the rest of the sport’s box-office attractions will be present and correct.
One important difference for the men’s event is that the matches are best-of-three sets rather than five.
Good news for Murray, perhaps. Of the Scot’s 17 wins over the world’s top three, 16 have come in the best-of three set format.
With Nadal gone, there are three distinct favourites for gold – and Murray is most definitely one of them.