Saturday Interview: Judy Murray dreading Andy v Jamie clash this summer
When Judy Murray’s phone beeps, then to anyone mismanaging the sport she loves who happens to be within earshot, it must sound deeply foreboding – a bit like the crack of doom.
Oh no, the mismanagers must think, she’ll soon be on the warpath again. We’re not doing enough for tennis and she’s raging. Just the other day, a photo was tweeted of public courts in Dundee. Only there was a bus plonked right in the middle. When some wag quipped that this was the wrong type of coach to be there Judy responded with a chuckling emoji. But of course she was angry. “Awful,” she tweeted. “Come on Dundee Council. Wimbledon and the summer holidays are coming. Get some activity on them.”
This made the papers, with the local authority forced into an explanation. The courts had been used for buses during resurfacing of a car park, they admitted, but this had only been a temporary measure. Other courts without municipal charabancs making volleying difficult were available nearby.
My guess is that Dundee Council won’t do this again. They’ve been well and truly telt. But right now, in the Cromlix Hotel with her phone turned to silent, Judy has other concerns. They’re the concerns of many parents at this time of year as schools stage their sports days. Your tenacious little competitor is desperate to win and there will be tears if he or she loses. Imagine being the mum or dad of twins competing in the same race – that would be fraught. But imagine being Judy at Queen’s next week with Andy on one side of the net and big brother Jamie on the other.
This could happen. Andy has almost predicted it will. As part of his comeback from the prolonged and excruciating injury traumas which at the start of this year seemed to have ended his career, he will play in the men’s doubles – Jamie’s speciality event. “It’s bound to end up happening I’d imagine,” he said the other day. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that was how the draw came out.” Andy added: “If I played him I’d definitely be trying to win of course.”
“Don’t!” groans Judy when I mention the possibility of a Murray match-up. “I’m praying it doesn’t happen. I think for a parent your kids competing against each other is the hardest thing. If it happens I might not even watch.
“I think in this kind of scenario I’d always want Jamie to win because doubles is his thing. But Andy could just breeze right in there. He’s very liable to do just that. He’d be instinctive in doubles, not traditional and very difficult to play against. So no: I’m really hoping it doesn’t happen. It will just be too stressful.”
The Cromlix is Andy’s hotel. Close to the home town of Dunblane, it was purchased by the three-times Grand Slammer in 2013 and has since claimed awards of its own. It’s busy this lunchtime and your correspondent is happy to swerve the modest office jalopy into the passing places on the long drive up to the front door to let the Rolls-Royces through. Murray and I talk in the lounge at what is an interesting juncture in her life.
In September she will be 60. Another milestone is reached this year: three decades of dedicated service to tennis spent coaching, championing, fighting its corner and generally being mum to the game in Scotland.
The birthday will be celebrated with old girlfriends, some from tennis and also university. Each will pick an “experience” for the group and a trip to see the Northern Lights is already booked. Murray may choose a cookery course in Tuscany – or Auschwitz. “I’ve been fascinated by it ever since school.” Well, she doesn’t shy away from very much.
And those 30 years, how will she mark them? In America, at the invitation of the great Billie Jean King, helping to grow tennis there. What, are we about to lose Judy? She doesn’t want me to say that because it’s not the case. But there’s no doubt the rest of the tennis world is noticing the good work she does here and wondering what she could do for them.
King, the winner of 39 Slam titles who’s become a good friend, has asked Murray out to Philadelphia when the World TeamTennis season begins right after Wimbledon. She says: “I’m going to be involved in the community programme, working in disadvantaged areas of the city and running come-and-try sessions and clinics. This completely plays to my strengths.”
These are strengths from which Scotland, the improbable, soggy, gouged home of the fantastic Murray tennis dynasty, has benefited hugely in the wake of Andy and Jamie’s Slam titles and world No 1 status. Their irrepressible, indomitable mother has crusaded and drove the battlebus and inquired “Anyone for tennis?” in some of the unlikeliest corners of the improbable land.
She’s also lobbied and crusaded and shouted “Legacy!” until turning blue in the face. That can be exhausting – even for the indomitable. Here’s one you might have heard before: between 2006 when Andy lifted his first ATP title and 2016, the period when the brothers enjoyed their greatest triumphs and were top-ranked, no indoor courts open to the public were built in Scotland. Murray admits: “I understand if you are constantly banging the drum on the same theme that some people will get fed up listening.”
Most recently she banged it at the Scottish Parliament, insisting that if Andy and Jamie were highly promising teenagers today they would still have to go abroad for coaching because of the lack of opportunities and facilities at home. And she criticised the funding Scotland receives from the Lawn Tennis Association – “£700,000 from a £64m budget despite having ten per cent of the population, two-thirds of the landmass and our need being greater because we started from such a low base.”
At various times today her frustration shows, such as when she contemplates the end of her sons’ glorious careers and says: “It’s absolutely now or never [for the country to build on Andy and Jamie’s legacy] because if I don’t get some kind of feeling that it will happen then maybe I’ll find something else to do.”
We talk about other things but it all seems to come back to tennis. I ask Murray if she’s ever fancied politics but this gets put away with a sharp volley. “I think I’d get far too frustrated. Being part of the establishment or a governing body, things would take too long to happen. I like being in charge of my own destiny.” Specifically, she’s in charge of the Judy Murray Foundation through which she’s mustering a volunteer tennis army: enthusiasts who’ll drive the game at grassroots level as start-up coaches like Murray was herself back in the day. And she’s driving the sports complex at Park of Keir near Dunblane which has been a long time coming, although Murray expects work to start early next year. The mission statement promises “accessible and affordable” tennis but further backers need to be found.
Also seemingly batted away is the prospect of her re-marrying. “I’m not sure I could find someone who would be willing to put up with me,” says the woman with a notion of taking her one-woman mobile tennis ministry to somewhere very possibly quite obscure in the Third World. “For anyone who got involved with me it might be a bit of a nightmare,” she adds. Because of her schedule or her personality? “My schedule! I can be quite good fun…”
We talk about celebrity, that strange netherworld she had no desire to enter before 2014’s Strictly Come Dancing. She only appeared on Strictly because she was a fan of the show but underestimated what a short-lived, clodhopping but warmly-received stint would do for her – and for tennis. There were other TV opportunities – she appeared on Have I Got News for You and Room 101 but turned down Celebrity Mastermind (“What do I know about apart from tennis? You could end up looking really stupid.”). Telly boosted her self-confidence, a lack of which previously having crippled her.
In the conference halls of the world – with tennis as the theme or sport in general or being a woman in a man’s world – Murray is much in demand. “I’ll talk to hundreds of people and that’s something I couldn’t have imagined doing before.” Once there were 1,000 sat before her in Mexico. This gig was her challenge, after she’d berated the International Tennis Federation for having a 14-man board with no women. “I’d always wimped out of speaking before; I was terrified. But when you come out of your comfort zone and survive something like that it gives you great strength.” She joked “that everything in Mexico seems to come back to tequila” so if her talk was a disaster she’d simply get drunk. When it wasn’t she vowed to accept three big overseas invitations every year so that she was always “taking one for the girls”.
Overseas definitely likes her. Other countries approve of her ideas for developing tennis, China, Brazil and two in the Middle East among them. “They say to me: ‘Come and build your workforce here’. We could have a Murray Tennis Centre in any of these places. They admire the way Andy and Jamie play and they’d like to use the name.” Hothouses in Rio or Beijing would be a fine thing and further evidence of how well Scots travel and the gifts they give to the world. But no one would want to see such a centre established abroad before Scotland got its own, least of all Judy.
And by the way, none of this should be perceived as a threat. Murray isn’t being boastful and nor is she feeling sorry for herself. The dynasty just happens to be very good at what it does.
The potential little local difficulty of Andy vs Jamie apart, Mum is thrilled to have her sons back playing at the same time, in the same tournament when at the Australian Open back in January, Andy had confessed in a tearful press conference: “If that was my last match, it was an amazing way to end.” But he returned from Melbourne and underwent a second hip operation – the radical Birmingham Method of resurfacing the joint – and for the first time in a long while there is hope.
“It’s early days,” says Murray, “and only four-and-a-half months since the op but right now, after everything he’s been through, he’s in a good place. He’s ready to get back out on a grass court and that’s great.
“When you’re a fighter and a born competitor like Andy you miss the sparring and that battle. It will be good for him to get a bit of that back. He’s been playing golf, which is something he hadn’t been able to do for six years, actually because of his back and not the hip, and he’s become very competitive in his matches, as you might imagine. That will have provided him with a bit of stimulation because he will have been like a caged tiger during all this time away from tennis.”
Did Murray think he’d reached the end in Melbourne? “There was always that possibility because he had been in a lot of pain for a very long time, about 20 months, and he’d explored so many solutions to getting better but none of them appeared to be working for him. I did think ‘This might be it’ but the thing about Andy as you know is that he’s not a quitter – ever.
“The resurfacing of the hip gives him a chance. [US player] Bob Bryan has undergone it and is back playing and winning and that will have given Andy some heart but Bob’s game is doubles. Singles at the top level is so tough now and especially in the Slams where you can be pushed to five sets and be on court for five hours.
“Re-surfacing is a relatively new procedure and, regarding what Andy wants it to achieve, there are no case studies, but if anyone can make it work then he can. He’s a fighter in everything he does. He loves tennis and is an absolute geek for it. Also, he’s so bloody-minded! If you tell him he can’t do something he will go out of his way to do it and prove you wrong. I think he gets that from me!”
Those 20 months will have been hellish for Scotland’s greatest-ever sportsman but not much fun for his mother either. There were moments when Murray wanted him to admit defeat even though she knew he wouldn’t. “It was very hard seeing him in pain and struggling with those injuries. I wanted to say to him, ‘It doesn’t matter, you’ve achieved loads, it’s all right to stop,’ but that’s just not in his nature. This has been a very long road for Andy. Incredibly painful, physically, and there’s been all the emotional torture as well. A monotonous regime of rehabilitation, day after day, and not knowing whether it’s going to actually work, but he’s been incredibly resilient. And the flipside of course has been that these 20 months away from tennis have given him so much time with his family that he wouldn’t otherwise have had. That’s been a wonderful thing and, for me, lovely to see.”
The nation wishes him well in his comeback. The nation secretly hopes for the brotherly battle which Mum couldn’t bear to watch. And the nation wants Judy Murray to clatter that drum with her racquet and not stop.