IF YOU saw Judy Murray being interviewed on the stage at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony last Sunday night you might have thought that she was comfortable in the limelight when, actually, the opposite is the case.
When, during the show, a BBC floor guy came to her seat, with cables sticking out of his every orifice and a look a panic on his face, her first answer to his question – “Will you please come on stage?” – was a resounding no. That was her second answer, too. And would have been her final answer had he not signalled the seriousness of his predicament with the words ‘Filler! We need a filler!”
Murray knows the television game well enough to realise that filler is code for crisis, a code for something that has gone terribly pear-shaped behind the scenes, something obviously to do with Andy in Miami and a live interview he was supposed to having with Gary Lineker in the build-up to the final verdict. She left her seat and did her talking. Privately, she said to herself that the next time she saw her boy she may not be able to resist the urge to throttle him, but it turned out her boy was entirely innocent. Sure, he was in the shower when Lineker was expecting to speak to him, but he was in the shower because the BBC had mucked up their timings. Enter Judy Murray as the sweeper, mopping up a potential crisis and making things smooth again.
Although she has collected an amount of prestigious awards on her son’s behalf over the years – and this year in particular – her favourite setting is not a television studio or on the stage of a glamorous bash. What we’re in Bridge of Allan to talk about is the grassroots of tennis, not elite tennis. She wants to push forward the importance of cultivating the next generation of champions not celebrating the current ones, even though she has two grand slam winners as sons. Most particularly she is talking about the vision she has for a sporting academy barely a mile from where we are sitting, a tennis (and golf) centre between Bridge of Allan and Dunblane, not just a vision of bricks and mortar but a concept of bringing her sport to kids who wouldn’t otherwise play it, a desire to capitalise on the success of her champion sons before it is too late.
“I’ve spoken to Alex Salmond several times about the academy programme and he has always been really supportive, but now I really need him to help me make it happen because I’m 54 years old and I still have quite a lot of energy but you don’t know how long you are going to be around for,” she says. “Not to be morbid or anything. I’m basically saying that this is what I want to do. I’m not looking at this as a commercial venture, no way. It will probably end up being some kind of charitable trust. It was never about commerce for me. It’s always been about growing the game.
“I just want this thing built. I want to help inspire another generation of kids, I want to help build a strong coaching workforce. That would be the legacy. I would absolutely hate it if Andy and Jamie finished their careers in five years time and we have nothing to show for it. I would hate it. It would kill me.”
Has she seen a growth in facilities to match the growth in interest in tennis since Andy became “Andy!” and kids started to wake up to the joys of his sport? No. “I want it up and running while Andy and Jamie are still playing. Andy’s been in the top-100 in the world since he was 18 and he’s been in the top-10 since he was about 19 and he’s been in the top-five for five years and we’ve got two new indoor courts in all that time in Scotland. Two new indoor courts in a private club in Bridge of Weir.
“I haven’t seen a growth in the facilities in Scotland. I’ve seen investment from the LTA in the parks programme – public facilities in parks – in Edinburgh and Glasgow, in particular, and there has been good work done in doing up what were derelict courts, but what I really want to see is that being pushed further out, not just in the central belt. I want to see it in towns, in disadvantaged areas, because anybody who sees tennis on TV and wants to have a go at it, you’re not going to go up to your local club, you’re going to try and find a court in a public park and that’s how you get started. But that park needs to have activity and it needs to be driven by people and that’s why I say people are critical.”
Let’s go back to the beginning. For some years now, Judy Murray has been looking for a site on which to make her dream of a tennis academy come true. With the help of the Auchterarder-based King Group she thinks she has found the land, if not the planning permission or all of the finance to make it happen. Indoor tennis courts, a five or six-hole golf course with the emphasis on teaching and fun, a hotel and a housing development (which might be a snag with the locals, but it’s a hurdle for another day).
The sport is the thing. Tennis being at the heart of it with golf a key factor, too. Colin Montgomerie is on-board on that side of things. “What we want is a community facility with an out-reach programme which means a team of coaches will operate from that base and will go out and take tennis to the local schools and clubs that don’t already have their own coaching programme,” she says. “We’ve lost a lot of local clubs and local courts over the last 20 years because they weren’t being used.
“Most of the clubs in Scotland are three or four courts, artificial grass and no flood-lighting. They’re not like golf clubs where they have a golf pro. Many of the local clubs don’t have coaches and even though our weather is so bad we don’t have a lot of indoor facilities in Scotland. There isn’t a strong coaching workforce because it’s not a career. It can’t be a career because most clubs are only open for tennis for six to seven months of the year.
“Our tennis coaching workforce in Scotland is quite small and weak because most of them are part-time because of the weather and the lack of indoor facilities. My interest is not in the bricks and mortar, it’s in the creation of a workforce that will carry on teaching. Your legacy is in your people. I never in my life imagined going into a primary school in Scotland where everybody knew about tennis and knew about Andy and all of them wanted to give it a go. It’s such an enormous opportunity.”
The passion is unmistakeable, the logic inescapable. Mini-tennis is making an appearance in Scottish schools these days. Progress, but on its own, it’s not enough. If mini-tennis is a child’s only outlet to play then it’s not going to sustain. They need somewhere to go after their mini-tennis, they need a court where they can play all year, not just in the months when it’s dry or warm. Two new indoor courts (in a private club) in all of Scotland since the rise of the Murrays? It’s an astonishing statistic.
Judy Murray’s Set 4 Sport programme is helping to fill the void. It’s an imaginative way of getting parents and children interacting and learning the fundamentals of the game even in the confines of their own home. That’s how the Murray boys got started.
There is a wider story to all of this, of course. There is a crisis of obesity and general lack of exercise among the youth of today and too often the finger is pointed at how little physical education is being taught in schools. “You hear all the time that every primary school has to have two hours of PE a week. Well, if a primary school class has 30 children in it, I wouldn’t like to be a teacher that has to deliver PE to 30 children by myself – and I’ve been doing this for years.
“If you think about five, six and seven year-olds, by the time they get changed and by the time you get them organised you’re lucky if you get 20 minutes of activity before they have to get changed again and go back to class. So this is why I talk about investing in people. It could be a fourth year or fifth year from the local high school who likes the idea of sports education as a career, it could be a batch of parents. I mean, if you are a teacher and you are doing that on your own and you have 30 five year-olds and one of them needs to go to the loo, what do you do?
“It all goes back to people. We need a workforce. We need to find them and nurture them. I’m sure the coaches are out there. People ask me do we have enough talented kids in Scotland. Of course we do. We have loads of talent. It’s not about the talent, it’s about the opportunity. Talent without opportunity is nothing. There are people out there but everybody needs somebody to look out for them, to help them and encourage them. Too often in this country you can get good people working in isolation and you don’t get the best out of them or they get so isolated and so discouraged that you lose them.”
A while back, Murray got talking to the First Minister and he was saying how proud he was of the government’s Club Golf programme. She listened and understood where Salmond was coming from. The programme was impressive, no doubt about it. She also got to thinking about why can’t there be a similar governmental focus on tennis.
“I’d like to see Sport Scotland really taking hold of this. At government level I’d like to see them doing something like they did with Club Golf where they said ‘Right, we’re really going to invest in golf in the run-up to the Ryder Cup coming to Scotland’. Well, now that you’ve got the Wimbledon champion from Scotland and there are all these kids gagging to have a go at tennis so let’s have something that is really going to capitalise on this, something that gets tennis into more primary schools, something that builds a pathway for the kids who love the sport to carry on with it. That’s the dream.”
The dream is having a base for tennis in Scotland, so if you are a kid in Inverness you can come and get an MOT on your game from driven young coaches who will send you home with ideas and encouragement and then get you back down the road in the six weeks for another session. That’s the out-reach programme she talks about, a facility that makes it harder for talented kids to slip through the net for lack of encouragement and facilities. There’s been too much of that already, she fears.
Tennis can’t stand on its own in this venture. It needs golf, it needs the extras. She needs to surround the tennis with other things to make it viable. “With this project, the guys who own the land are unbelievable, they’re the first people who really sat down and listened to everything that I have learned and everything that I think will work. They’ve been brilliant. In all of my years I have never had anybody from that kind of business world who has supported me like that. The site already has outline planning permission for an 18-hole golf course, but we don’t need an 18-hole course, we actually don’t even need a 9-hole course, we need something like a five or six-hole course with driving range facilities where you can learn the game. Golf is something that I would love to learn how to play but I don’t have three or four hours in the day to go round. And some golf courses don’t want kids running around the place. Kids know when they’re not wanted. You need to bring them some place where they are wanted and where learning is fun.”
There’s a way to go on this. There’s planning permission to be obtained, there’s a lot more financial backing to be sought, there’s a world of different things that will need to happen before it becomes a reality, but one thing it does not lack is passion and a big picture view. Murray has as much of that as she could possibly need.
It does seem insane that in the age of Andy Murray – Wimbledon champion, US Open champion, Olympic champion and champion of who knows what in years to come – that Scotland has made such a pitiful – almost laughable – degree of progress in the last five years in terms of capitalising on the success of arguably its greatest ever sportsman.
Two new indoor courts built in a country where the weather is foul? No pathway for the new Andy Murrays? No roadmap for those who want to coach and inspire?
“I’m not David Lloyd and I only want to do one of these. I want to lead a team and create a legacy. I mean I love going into schools. I absolutely love it. That’s where I’m happiest and I can see that kids want to play and I can see the talent. The talent’s there. But we need to support it.”
Time flies. If the chance is not taken now, before you know it, it might be gone forever.