Andy Murray is at worst the third-best human in the world at his job, which was difficult to remember after the first two sets of the Wimbledon quarterfinal, both of which he dropped—and it was Murray who dropped them, with bad misses and questionable decision-making—to the implausibly in control Fernando Verdasco, who was then ranked 54th in the world. At that moment, Murray looked, more than anything, emotionally disturbed. Here he is sitting on the sideline and shouting at someone; the official or maybe his opponent, but upon further examination actually at himself, an impassioned one-sided argument in which he play-acts both a father and the son he’s yelling at for being such a goddamn disappointment. He repeatedly and sarcastically asks himself, “What are you doing?” bundled with a bunch of NSF-TV words. It’s a big performance; if it were in a movie, critics might say that he’s overdoing it somewhat.
Murray, it’s worth noting, isn’t some started-from-the-bottom-now-we-here upstart who’s still learning to handle his shit. He’s Andy Murray, Olympic gold medalist, 2013 U.S. Open winner, finalist at the last five major tennis events he’s played—he skipped this year’s French Open because of injury—ranked second in the world and, to reiterate, no worse than third in the true rankings. And here he is, acting like an overworked high school junior denigrating himself for missing a question in the math section of the SATs, right there in front of thousands of fans and millions of people watching at home, all of them paying very acute and loaded attention to him. Murray is right there, and either unable or unwilling to bury his mental interior below the surface.
We can only read so much into the psyche of an athlete—or really, anyone—because low-level telepathy is not yet a human mutation, but also because of how our experience of those athletes is mediated. We only catch any individual player in any team sport a fraction of the time, most likely when the man at the boards has been directed by some sweat-stained executive producer to specifically cut to Tim Tebow right as he seems to be sighing at how shitty Mark Sanchez is.
As grounds for character judgment, that seems categorically unfair. The only athlete we can totally understand through those brief glimpses is Kobe Bryant, since it’s usually a fair assumption that he’s thinking about murdering someone. But there’s so much more to go off in tennis, where the camera is trained on each player at pretty much all times—not enough to justify patronizing, rosary clutching columns on why Rafael Nadal isn’t a TRUE WINNER because he has been known to smile during matches, but enough to get a fair idea of the particular ways in which the top players sublimate their feelings through behavioral tics, play tactics, in-game rituals and so on. It’s not a portrait, but it’s a very detailed sketch.
I won’t connect the dots, but consider the following: the way Roger Federer cruises on gentlemanly neutral until he’s clearly winning or losing, at which point he begins shouting and fist pumping like someone no longer capable of hiding the fact that he’s drunk; the way Novak Djokovic leisurely smirks to himself after a bad break, already plotting his revenge; the way Juan Martin Del Potro leisurely treats the court like a stage, winning over the crowd and the opponent with his wistful, exasperated glances and gesticulation; the way Serena Williams looks like she is so totally over it, all the time.
Or consider the way that Murray is having it out with himself before collecting his bearings and crushing Verdasco in the next two sets to even things up, and then eventually toughing it out in the final set to advance to the semifinal, itself the preview for his eventual Wimbledon victory, making him (as you might have heard) the first British man to do so since before the second World War. From inexplicable, self-berating failure to steely glory: it’s the Andy Murray experience, summed up in a few days.
Some background information on Andrew Barron Murray: He was born on May 15, 1987 in Glasglow, Scotland, which has led to some territorial pissing over the question of whether he counts as British or Scottish. The latter seem to feel that the English only want to claim him when he wins, and are content to pass him off as just another dreary Scot otherwise. His mother is Judith Murray, a former women’s player herself who trained him and brother Jamie from an early age, leading to predictable accusations of being a mama’s boy. He made his first Grand Slam final at the age of 20, playing Roger Federer in the 2008 U.S. Open, but lost in straight sets; he made two more finals over the next few years and dropped them in straight sets, too, before finally taking the first set of the 2012 Wimbledon final, also against Federer, and... losing the next three, leading to a teary runner’s up speech in which he swore he was getting closer to the next level.
Close, indeed. A few weeks later, he absolutely smushed Federer in the gold medal match of the London Olympics, which was held on the same Wimbledon Centre Court on which he’d just lost. After that, Murray beat Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open to finally capture his first Grand Slam title, a breakthrough widely attributed to the influence of Ivan Lendl, the former champion he’d hired as coach before the 2012 season, and who’d also lost his first four Grand Slam appearances before winning nine titles and so presumably had a thing or two to teach about perseverance in the face of a media and fan-base constantly asking when you’re going to stop being such a miserable loser-ass failure. (Sidebar: Win or lose, Lendl never shows emotion at anything Murray does, which is a reliably entertaining distraction during each of his matches.)
Stylistically, Murray is a classic counter-puncher who gets by on unparalleled quickness and reflexes and indefatigable reserves of energy; that and a booming serve, a seriously splayed running forehand he can use to hit cross-court winners at any angle, and a first-rate slice backhand that’s both deep and wide and allows him to extend rallies until his opponent eventually makes a mistake. There’s no flashy or singular characteristic: nothing on the order of Federer’s effortless grace, Nadal’s lefty lariat forehand or Djokovic’s elastic puissance. Certainly, nothing that by itself explains why, at the age of 26, Murray has finally made the Big Three of tennis into a Big Four. The simplest or most narrative-ready explanation is that he’s always had the pure ability to compete but that that Lendl has loaned him some I Must Break You aggression, and that Murray has physically matured to the point where this defensive baseline style becomes a smothering sleeping bag absorbing all its hapless occupant’s thrashing.
There’s nothing boring about this, somehow—it’s awesome to watch Murray gobble up opponents’ serves, suck the air out of a penetrating forehand with his slice, chase drop shots from anywhere on the court and return shot after shot beyond the baseline until unexpectedly turning things around. Nothing ever seems to come easy for him; he’s always making a face that suggests his large intestine is being pulled out one tug at a time. Just as Nadal with Federer and Djokovic with Nadal, he’s emerged as a natural foil for Novak Djokovic, presently the undisputed number one in the world and someone who plays with the ceaseless advance of a Terminator. In their final, they combined for three of the twelve longest rallies that happened during the entirety of Wimbledon; they also had a 54-shot rally in the 2012 U.S. Open that totally made everyone watching, computer-lapped, resolve to start exercising or something.
Djokovic is quite probably better—the rankings reflect that, and Murray has yet to have the same level of success on clay, which still means finishing second to Nadal, unkillable goliath he remains on the surface. But Murray’s won two of the last three Grand Slam finals in which he has faced Djokovic, including a straight-set walloping at the Wimbledon final, the first time Djokovic’s been done in that quickly at a major in three years. Barring injury, they’re absolutely the favorites to appear in a rematch at the U.S. Open.
There’s another formative piece of this puzzle that’s often mentioned, too; it’s off the benign tennis narrative, and attempts to fit it in are invariably a little queasy. But it’s a fact that a nine-year old Murray was present at the Dunblane massacre, which was something like the Scottish equivalent of the Newtown shootings, in which gunman Thomas Hamilton shot 16 schoolchildren and one adult at Dunblane Primary School before killing himself. Murray was a class above those who were shot and not intimately familiar with any of them; perhaps more chillingly, he appears to have been casual family friends with the shooter. Here he is, writing in his autobiography about the incident:
“Some of my friends' brothers and sisters were killed. I have only retained patch impressions of that day, such as being in a classroom singing songs. The weirdest thing was that we knew the guy. He had been in my mum's car. It's obviously weird to think you had a murderer in your car, sitting next to your mum. That is probably another reason why I don't want to look back at it. It is just so uncomfortable to think that it was someone we knew from the Boys Club. We used to go to the club and have fun. Then to find out he's a murderer was something my brain couldn't cope with. I could have been one of those children.”
None of which is mine or anyone else’s to interpret or turn into some maudlin poem about the triumph of the human spirit except to say, wow. He doesn’t talk about it much, and at any rate, it’s Murray’s experience to hoard or explain as he sees fit. We can only assume it’s in there, somewhere, in the rituals and the self-beratement and fist pumps. But we can only assume.
We’re left to figure out what Murray is like from the way he plays because he barely gives an inkling of personality off the court. Seriously: he admitted to being intentionally boring and came off like the World’s Dullest Man in a series of interviews with the New York Times during the 2012 U.S. Open. He mumbles when he talks. Until I followed him on Twitter and watched him give enthusiastic commentary during the French Open, which he was watching from home, I wouldn’t have even thought he liked tennis; it might’ve just been something he proved to be good at, and hey, why not make millions of pounds to travel the world? (Here’s one of his recent commercials, in which he delivers his only line with the charisma of a dead gopher.)
The main signs of life he shows are in those pained faces and sarcastic conversations, most of which comes out when he’s not having a great go of things. But where the old Murray—the one who had such a poor showing in his first finals—might have folded after having a fit, the new, post-Slam model seems to have figured out how to slow his roll in those temperamental moments. Losing in straight sets to Verdasco would’ve been a disaster, but he came back; he also held triple championship point in the final before Djokovic battled back to even it up and even force a few break points, all of which carried the possibility of a heavy, career-crushing collapse. If he’d lost the match after being up that much in front of this crowd, it would’ve been one of the most humiliating losses at any level of sport. But Murray calmed himself and eventually won the championship on that game. He’s only neurotic to a point.
The boilerplate #sportstake would be that Murray “learned how to win” at the Olympics, which is why he’s now a perennial contender instead of That Sour Boy. Which, sure, but there’s a wrinkle to this generally approachable truth, which is that Murray has failed. A lot. In embarrassing fashion, to the point where not-so-informed strangers would have open discussions about whether he’d ever succeed at the ultimate level, since who doesn’t love to speculate on why an athlete isn’t performing up to some vague set of expectations.
All of which, we must once again assume, likely weighed on his mind as failure does on anyone’s until, one day—whenever and why-ever it was—Murray figured it out. That he’s failed so much internalized itself as an endearingly humble quality, too: He’s had some of the most successful 12 months of anyone in tennis, and yet was being completely serious when, prior to Wimbledon, he said he might never win. And then he went out and did it.
Murray is a prodigy in plenty of ways—duh, this is his job—but this grappling with failure is the part that simultaneously drags him down Olympus and makes him more heroic. In this struggle, Murray feels entirely human and knowable, especially in that raw moment where he was shouting at himself.
Think about where the path eventually ends up. There was a moment when, after the match was over, in which Djokovic sprouted this little grin as he walked away from the net, as though he’d suddenly remembered who he was: a guy who’d probably compete for the next one. Murray’s headed down a road that elite athletes travel, but he’s embraced his public oddities rather than hide them—gone self-effacingly extrovert instead of withdrawing into a Borgian cool or exploding with aggro zest. This is a champion’s choice, in its own way.
During that one-sided conversation, Murray was shouting “What are you doing?” with a look of wide-eyed surprise on his face, as though he couldn’t believe any answer he might give. Two years ago, that question might’ve been phrased more cynically and self-deprecatingly; Murray might have dropped the match altogether. This time, he was just being honest. He honestly didn’t know, and then he found an answer and figured it out.