A CERTAIN description keeps coming up in the extraordinary life of Andy Murray: “Unbelievably competitive.”
That is how his junior coach, Leon Smith, now Davis Cup captain and one of the most important figures in British tennis, described the five-year-old he first saw wielding a tennis racquet back in Dunblane in 1993.
It is a phrase also used when discussing Murray by a certain John McEnroe, thus proving it takes an “unbelievably competitive” person to know one.
It is also the fundamental characteristic in his career, and it was evident once again as he defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga over four demanding sets yesterday to become the first British man in 74 years to reach a Wimbledon singles final.
So where did it come from?
Some of it comes from a gene pool that included a grandfather in Roy Erskine who played professional football for Hibernian, Stirling Albion and Cowdenbeath.
Some of it comes from the challenges he has had to overcome in his 25-year-old life.
Such as experiencing the Dunblane massacre of 1996, when Thomas Hamilton killed 17 people, mostly children, before turning a gun on himself.
Murray, who was eight at the time, has always been reluctant to talk about the ordeal but, in his autobiography Hitting Back, he describes attending a youth group run by Hamilton and the fact his mother Judy used to give him lifts in her car.
Then there was the separation of his parents, Willie and Judy, when he was nine, which saw Murray and his brother Jamie go to live with their father.
Yet the Murray steel also comes from growing up in the shadow of his older brother amid a sibling rivalry that spilled onto the tennis court.
As a youngster, Jamie was rated the second best junior player in the world and beating him became Andy’s greatest motivation.
When the younger brother’s first victory came, in an under-12 final in Solihull, Andy taunted Jamie so much he received a rap on the hand so hard he lost a nail.
Pushing the boundaries, fuelled by an inner fire to be the best, came naturally to Murray.
It is why he did not go down the usual route, which would have taken him through the Lawn Tennis Association, . Instead, in his mid-teens he headed for Spain, having reasoned a young Rafael Nadal was training with Carlos Moya, then world No 1, while he was hitting balls with brother Jamie.
Murray moved to Barcelona, training on the clay courts of the Sanchez-Casal Academy. He put up with homesickness, and his academic studies suffered, but his tennis education, could not have been better.
At an impressionable age, Murray was brushing shoulders with success rather than failure and, when he won the junior US Open in 2004, it was obvious a star was in the making.
In 2005, Murray, then ranked 312th, upset 14th seed Radek Stepanek in the second round at Wimbledon in straight sets before losing to Argentinian David Nalbandian in a dramatic five-set thriller as the teenage body cramped up.
It was not the last time Murray’s immature physique would let him down, the Scot famously throwing up on court at the US Open and missing the French Open and Wimbledon in 2007 with a wrist injury.
Yet all the time Murray knew where he was travelling and was ruthless in his determination to get there. He ditched Brad Gilbert, who was brought in at vast expense by the LTA to help him take the extra step up the world rankings and surrounded himself with an entourage of physios and fitness coaches who helped him through the punishing routines to add brawn to his undoubted tennis brain. And always there was mum Judy, herself a national tennis coach and his biggest supporter.
So Murray soared all the way to the world’s top three, reaching the final of the US Open in 2008 against Roger Federer on the way. He lost in straight sets but vowed to go one better.
For four years he has been striving to do just that, and it has been a tough road. Two more grand slam finals have followed, both in Australia, but both times he has been outplayed, first by Federer and then Novak Djokovic.
That second loss, in January last year, was probably the toughest of his career. Murray’s philosophy, partly taken from his love of boxing, has always been that to be better than your rivals you must work harder and gain advantages in any way you can.
The slap in the face that, after all the pain and suffering, it was still not enough, was something the Scot struggled to deal with.
But Murray demonstrated his determination by hiring eight-time grand slam champion and no-nonsense hardman Ivan Lendl as coach at the end of last year. The impact has been evident in subtle changes to Murray’s game – the flatter forehand and kick second serve being the most obvious. But also his mindset. Steely, focused, ruthless.
Tomorrow comes the greatest test as he one again finds Federer standing in his way of a first grand slam title, and this time at tennis’s most iconic venue and a shrine to British sporting underachievement.
It is tempting to think this is Murray’s time, and a nation holds its breath to see whether, this time, he can seize the moment.