Interview: Colin Fleming on the Murrays and his own playing and coaching career

Colin Fleming won eight ATP Tour doubles titles and has no regrets over leaving his singles career behind him. Picture: Jeff Holmes/REX/Shutterstock
Colin Fleming won eight ATP Tour doubles titles and has no regrets over leaving his singles career behind him. Picture: Jeff Holmes/REX/Shutterstock
Share this article
0
Have your say

It is probably the first piece of considered comment ever uttered about the strokeplay of Sir Andy Murray. Not yet knighted, not yet a Grand Slam champ and, crivvens, very possibly not yet seven years old – he’d just demolished a boy three years his senior.

“This was a tournament in Dunblane or maybe Stirling,” says Colin Fleming. “I wasn’t the only older boy who lost to him around that time and we all used to say the same thing: ‘That Andy 
Murray – he’s just a hacker’.”

Fleming smiles at the memory of those early encounters with his friend, future doubles partner and Davis Cup team-mate. What did the term mean in this case? Obviously nothing to do with being crafty with computers or dirty at football or rubbish at golf – and, as was painfully apparent to Fleming, this interpretation didn’t apply either: “hacker – a person who engages in an activity without talent or skill.”

“Andy was six or seven and his brother Jamie was seven or eight and we were probably all at the same level,” he continues. “Actually no: these two were already phenomenal.” Okay, but hacker – does he want one more go at trying to explain it? “Well, Andy used to moon-ball us to death. He’d loop these shots high in the air and they’d be impossible for small boys to return. Even at that age he had this amazing tactical nous which enabled him to make life on the court difficult if not downright impossible for his opponents. Essentially that’s still what his tennis is about now.”

Notice how Fleming uses the present tense. He doesn’t think we’ve seen the last of the hacker. For him, though, it’s mostly commentating and coaching now, though you’ll find this stalwart of Scottish tennis and a dab hand at doubles still scudding a ball on the veterans’ circuit, next up at this month’s Brodies Invitational at Gleneagles.

“Events like these are massively enjoyable,” he says. “You turn up and play relaxed, which is the state of mind you craved but never fully achieved as a professional. All that stress and pressure, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the pro game: the butterflies before a big match, the exhilaration of battling through tough moments and being successful – you can’t ever replace that and I think all sportsmen would say the same.

“The Brodies has been brilliant, though. I’ve had the chance to play guys like Mark Philippoussis and Greg Rusedski, which was a level at singles I was never quite able to reach.” From Gleneagles, the 34-year-old will move on to the Doubles Invitational at Wimbledon where the comparison between past and present mental states will be even more pronounced. “Looking back at my career there I was just a bag of nerves really. Even after the fifth, sixth, seventh time of competing I was the same. Wimbledon is where all your hopes and dreams lie.” And often die.

Who would play this infernal game? And who would even attempt to play it on a day like today in Bridge of Allan? June beckons but the town where we’ve met for a coffee is getting a proper soaking. Once again it’s a day to be amazed that Scotland produced any tennis talent at all. Fleming reflects: he was born in 1984, Jamie in ’86 and Andy the year after. Then at the start of the following decade, Stirling University got four indoor courts. “That was the key to it all, the hub of everything, with Judy [Murray] as national coach. Without some kind of indoor facilities I don’t think anything would have happened.” Now the uni becomes home to a fully-fledged tennis academy, LTA-backed and dedicated to moulding the elite players of tomorrow. It opens for business in September and Fleming will coach there and continue to fulfil the same role with Britain’s Fed Cup team.

Fleming grew up next door to Linlithgow Tennis Club and reckons he started tagging along with his father, dragging a racquet behind him, at the age of three. Tennis wasn’t all that was passed down the line: there’s also Partick Thistle. This isn’t a deliberately eccentric choice of football team; the old man is a Maryhill native. Thus, from Delhi to Delray, Fleming has circumnavigated the globe for his chosen sport, telling anyone who was interested and some who weren’t all about the great and glorious Jags. “Most people, when I mention Thistle, go: ‘Who?’” he laughs. But isn’t technology wonderful? “Sitting in an airport far away I can stream their matches or keep up to date with the chat on the Firhill for Thrills Whatsapp group. My dad and big brother have season tickets but I’ve got a young family and am still busy with tennis and so don’t get to many matches. My kids are four and two and I don’t think my wife would thank me for inflicting Thistle on them right now.”

The Delray Beach Open in Florida was one of eight ATP wins at doubles achieved by Fleming, while Delhi was the scene of his gold medal triumph alongside Jocelyn Rae in mixed at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The Scottish twosome defeated No 1 seeds Anastasia Rodionova and Paul Hanley to claim their prize, but not just the Aussies: “There were these bugs, as big as your voice recorder here. We’d sit down at the change of ends and they’d pounce on us. There wasn’t any effort to clear the courts of them because they were probably viewed as an advantage to the home nation.” True enough: that would be like Glasgow for the next Commy Games clearing the streets of its flaneurs, capable of delivering a “Hullo” which sounds like a threat. Local colour should always be preserved.

Fleming partnered both Andy and Jamie at doubles. Who did he prefer? “That depended on whether we were winning,” he says diplomatically. He also played with Ross Hutchins and Ken Skupski, older brother of Neal, who this week became Jamie’s new sidekick. His time in twosome tennis pre-dates players talking to each other like spies in a Cold War comedy, hands over mouths, and them fist-pumping every point won. Both these tics seem wildly overdone, I suggest. He says I’d be surprised at how much you’re scrutinised by upcoming opponents but admits about the touchy-feely stuff: “I can see how people would be irritated by it.”

So why doubles? For Fleming it was the pragmatic option, although there’s an acceptance that he maybe wasn’t entirely fair on himself as a singles player. “Everyone starts out trying to be successful at singles and I peaked at 359. I could maybe have gone higher, although I reckon everyone when they retire thinks they were better than the rankings showed! Looking back I probably wish I’d had more belief and given singles a couple more years but I’ve no regrets. Aged 17 I could never have imagined playing all the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup and that’s what doubles allowed me to do.” So how to choose the right partner? Is it like the dating game? “A bit, although you were looking for opposites to attract. I had an okay serve, not amazing, but was a good returner, pretty sharp at the net and played with a lot of nervous energy. So I needed a solid server who didn’t need to be the best returner but, mood-wise, was steady-as-she-goes.”

You don’t have to like each other, although this always baffled Fleming. “There were pairings who barely talked away from the court, who couldn’t even go for one meal together. How did that even work? [Daniel] Nestor and [fellow Canadian Sebastien] Lareau apparently couldn’t stand each other but agreed to put their 
differences aside and won [2000] Olympic gold.”

Sometimes blind dates can work. He arrived in Delhi not knowing who he was going to be his partner and he and Rae only managed one practice session together before beginning their own quest for gold. Breaking up – the “It’s not you, it’s me” chat – is hard to do. “With Ken I had some quick success and we got on to the ATP tour and beat the Bryans [Mike and Bob, then No 1
in the world] at Queen’s. We’d hoped to be going for Slams but we just 
fizzled out and I got frustrated about that. Ultimately I had to make a really tough decision, although we’re still good friends.” Football-wise, Skupski supports Liverpool. During their period together Fleming developed “a little affection for Man U, purely to wind him up”.

Fleming mentions his partnership with Hutchins which is perhaps revealing about our man. He credits Hutchins and his fierce work ethic with having a big influence on him before his partner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Ross missed 2013. That was a good year for me. I played with Andy and achieved my best ranking. By the time Ross was healthy again I had the chance to team up with some highly-ranked guys which would have meant being seeded at Slams, whereas going with Ross was going to bring tougher draws. But I went with Ross. I always saw us as a partnership. I thought we would go on and have success, although that didn’t quite happen. No regrets, though.”

In the doubles world, and certainly starting out in it, you have what Fleming calls a “modest lifestyle with no left turns on planes”. The singles player is guaranteed five nights’ accommodation from the Saturday before a tournament, even if he goes out in the first round, while the doubles man has to quit his room upon exit and, if travelling home is too far, must face the dilemma: “Who can I bunk up with?” At this year’s Australian Open, when eight Brits reached the second round of the men’s doubles, Jamie accused the LTA of not properly recognising the contribution of pairings to the country’s tennis fortunes. Fleming agrees with his friend but feels the downrating of doubles happens everywhere. “I see it when I’m commentating and the cameras are turned off after the singles are finished. The profile of doubles should be higher because it’s still world-class tennis.”

In the Davis Cup, Fleming went from Braehead Arena to baseball colosseums. In the former there would be 5,000 screaming fans, a sign of things to come when the magnificent Murrays-led revival of Britain’s fortunes in the tournament reached the Emirates Arena. “Every time I looked up at the stands I spotted someone I knew. Plus, playing on the ice rink, you could nip round to the shopping mall for your lunch.” Playing in the home of the San Diego Padres was a “pinch-yourself” moment and two wins fashioned 
by Andy made the win over the US “amazing”.

Fleming was there at the near-death of Britain in the competition, the 2010 defeat by Lithuania with its £100,000 tennis budget and a bunch of teenagers of John Lloyd’s team, despite the LTA receiving £30 million a year from Wimbledon’s profits. “Everyone was on the same flight home – team, staff, governing body, journalists – and I remember thinking: ‘What’s going to happen here?’ What happened was Lloyd lost his job and Leon Smith took over. How did he change things? Not by applying rocket science: “Everyone got really behind each other and the team effort; before it was players just focusing on individual matches.” There’s no doubt, though, that once the Murray boys were strapped in for the ride it went stratospheric.

Now the Davis Cup is changing and Fleming isn’t sure it’s for the best. The idea of making the tournament more like a World Cup, teams congregating in one country, will rob it of the kind of fevered home-and-away ties he cherishes most from his 
involvement.

“Playing in front of a passionate crowd in your own country or the thrill of silencing a possibly even more passionate crowd abroad were great moments. One of my best Davis Cup games was winning the doubles against Italy with Andy down in Naples, right next to the sea, with the home fans determined to throw us off our game. There was one guy – I can still see him – who kept popping up in different corners of the stadium to bellow at us.”

The Fed Cup may eventually follow suit and possibly happen at the same time as the men’s competition. Right now, though, Fleming as coach is focusing on the girls having just ended a 26-year wait for promotion on the back of victory over Kazakhstan.

“What an amazing, stressful, unbelievable contest that was, so many highs and lows, and I found it a lot tougher being on the bench than I ever did playing. The team were brilliantly led by Johanna Konta and Katie Boulter really showed her star quality. Now, apparently Scotland had just been thumped at football by Kazakhstan. Personally I can’t remember that but the girls gave me a lot of stick about it!”

Finally Fleming returns to the subject of the Murrays and how different they are from one another, only to check himself: “They do share something defining and that is a burning desire to win. Jamie is one of the best volleyers on the tour, that’s where his super-strength lies, while Andy’s returning is just out of this world.”

Were there times, playing doubles with Andy, where Fleming almost felt like a spectator, such was his mystical play? “Maybe the Canadian Open was a bit like that, arguably the biggest result of my career, when Andy, who’d just lost at singles, came out and served huge and laced his returns all over the place. I thought to myself: ‘Just be Mr Solid, that’ll do’.”

So what does the future hold for Mr Moon-Ball? More tennis hopefully. Fleming accepts that because of the injury travails we must all prepare for a world without Andy Murray. “That will be hard to take. Going right back into history he’s Scotland’s greatest sportsman. In one of the toughest sports and in its toughest eras, it’s crazy what the guy has achieved and, knowing what he’s like, I’m optimistic we’ll see him back on the court.

l The Brodies Tennis Invitational is the only Scottish date on the prestigious ATP Champions Tour. From 13 to 15 June at the Gleneagles Arena, legends including Tim Henman, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Thomas Enqvist and Henri Leconte will battle to become the 2019 champion. With guest appearances from Judy Murray, Xavier Malisse, GB Fed Cup captain Anne Keothavong and GB Fed Cup coach Colin Fleming. Tickets can be purchased online at https://brodiesinvitational.com/get-tickets/ Scotsman readers can claim a 15 per cent discount at the checkout using SCOTSMAN15.