Andy Murray: Heir to the throne
Published Date: 17 May 2009
By Jon Henderson
FAST APPROACHING is one of those anniversaries that remind us what an underachieving tennis nation Britain has been. Tomorrow marks 100 years since the birth of Fred Perry – and expect the day to excite much maudlin prose about the 73 years that have elapsed since Perry's third Wimbledon victory without another male player from these islands winning the game's crown of crowns.
I would like to try to lighten the gloom a little by reflecting on quite what a remarkable person and player Perry was and how in Andy Murray we now have someone who could emulate the son of cotton-mill workers from Stockport, near Manchester.
I know both these things to be true, having just completed the first biography ever written of Perry and having followed Murray's career closely since an agent friend of mine alerted me to his extraordinary potential while he was a skinny kid in his mid teens.
It really is a pity, then, that such a hard shell of cynicism has formed around the idea of Britain ever again producing a Wimbledon men's winner that even if Rafael Nadal were granted British citizenship tomorrow he would instantly be regarded as a no-hoper. As a result we are denying ourselves the pleasure that should follow from our having a player in our midst as breathtakingly talented as Murray.
That Murray is a special player becomes clear when viewed through a lens other than one distorted by decades of British failure. Also, look a little deeper and what is intriguing is that Murray, whose 22nd birthday is this month, has so much in common with Perry. So much, in fact, that it is not entirely coincidental that, for one thing, the young Scot started wearing Fred Perry clothing with its distinctive laurel-wreath insignia well before he gained wide public awareness as a player. John Flynn, the managing director of Fred Perry Ltd, says of Murray: "He's corporate but roguish, like Fred."
Neither Perry nor Murray was from that well-off, genteel milieu that is still regarded as tennis's natural heartland. Perry most certainly wasn't. Born in a determinedly working-class area of Stockport, his parents, Sam and Hannah, both toiled in cotton mills. The family escaped through Sam Perry's political ambition – he would later become a Labour MP – that brought them south to live in London at the end of the First World War. It was while on a family holiday in Eastbourne that Perry strayed from the beach, came across lawn tennis being played at Devonshire Park and was instantly seduced by the game and its wider possibilities that were evident from the expensive cars parked nearby.
Given the far more competitive era in which Murray is playing – for a start Perry was protected from great contemporaries such as Ellsworth Vines who had turned professional in the pre-Open era – it may be asking too much of him to match Perry's achievements. But enough similarities do exist to offer legitimate hope that, if not this year, then some time in the next four or five he can win at least one title on the emerald courts of the All England Club.
Like Perry, Murray is some distance removed from the posh English set who regard Wimbledon as part of what they still refer to, quaintly, as the summer season. This may help to account for the fact that, also like Perry, Murray has the hard edge of a career tennis player. This contrasts with the approach of other young British hopefuls that seems perpetually ready to yield to less stressful ways of making a living. It would be stretching things to surmise that what hardened Murray was the experience of being a pupil at Dunblane Primary School in March 1996 when Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 children and a teacher. It would be surprising, though, if someone as naturally purposeful as he is did not undergo a little clenching of his resolve that day.
Overwhelmingly, though, what makes Murray a latter-day version of Perry is having, in addition to all the right physical attributes, an intrinsic understanding of and feel for the game. Mark Petchey, Murray's former coach, has enthused about the time he spent as a teenager at a tennis academy in Barcelona, which gave him the foundation on which to build his "unique" way of playing. He was referring to Murray's ability to surprise with a game that is more nuanced than any other out there at the moment, and that includes Federer's. There have been plenty of outstanding athletes with unbelievable determination who have been coached to become tennis champions – think Ivan Lendl, think Rafael Nadal – but there have also been a few players who have thrilled us by following their own script. Murray is the latest in this distinguished line that can be traced back to Perry through players such as Federer, John McEnroe and Ken Rosewall.
The distinction is subtle, but Perry and Murray took to tennis rather then being taken to tennis. They recognised instantly their compatibility with the game. For both of them football was the obvious sporting choice. Neighbours of Perry remembered his early obsession with the game, while Murray might have had a tennis-playing mother but was far more susceptible to tales of footballers such as Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen and of the great managers such as Bill Shankly and Alex Ferguson. Among his peers, tennis was an alien sport.
Perry's early empathy with racket sports was evident from the way as a youngster he would commandeer the family kitchen, push the table up against the wall and play table tennis against himself.
Murray's feel for racket sports from a young age can be gauged from a story told by his mother about a visit to a badminton tournament when he was still quite small.
"It was in Glasgow," she says. "He'd never played the sport in his life, but after a short while he said, 'If I was playing that guy I'd just drop short, because every time he does that he lifts it up the backhand side, and then I'd do this, because he doesn't move back into the right place.' He has this very clever, quick mind."
Anyone who has any doubt that Murray is not a special player did not see him play his first Centre Court match at Wimbledon against David Nalbandian in 2005. The 18-year-old Murray teased and tormented the 2002 Wimbledon finalist to build a two-set lead, at which point factors other than tennis took over and the Argentine scrambled through. In those first two sets, Murray may have played the best tennis by a British player on Centre Court since Perry won his three Wimbledon titles in 1934, 1935 and 1936. That is how good he is. Enjoy him when he returns to SW19 next month.