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Monday 14 January 2019

Made in Dunblane

Andy Murray gave everything he had for success on court and, just as importantly, off it. It was more than enough, Simon Barnes writes

It all goes back to Dunblane. How could it not? It goes back to Dunblane the place, Andy Murray’s home; it goes back to Dunblane the incident, the day that shaped Andy Murray’s life and his subsequent career.

He hardly ever talked about it, and quite rightly, too. He hid behind the line that he was too young to understand: but it was 1996 and he was eight when the deranged Thomas Hamilton turned up at Dunblane Primary School with a gun and killed 16 children. Hamilton also killed a teacher before shooting himself. Murray knew Hamilton, perhaps he even liked him. He had been to a youth group run by Hamilton; his mother Judy had given Hamilton lifts in her car.

Even if Murray really was too young to understand the horrors of that day, he grew up in a community that had to deal with the horrors of the years that followed. You can’t live through extended traumas without your life being affected in the most profound way.

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In 2015 Murray led Great Britain to a first Davis Cup victory for 79 years

It would be frivolous, disrespectful – even downright offensive – to speculate on how these things shaped him and shaped the nature of his career. But the child hiding under a desk while the sounds of the atrocities filled his ears is an irrefragable part of the champion we have known over the past dozen or so years: one of the greatest sporting performers that Britain has ever produced.

Strange how things work out. Murray was involved in one of the most distressing events ever reported by the nation’s news media; 17 years later he personally created one of the most joyous. I was on Centre Court – reporting – for the second of these, when, for the first time in 77 years, a British tennis player won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon.

He was naturally gifted: sure, but we all have gifts, even if they’re not the sort to make us champions. It is what we do with our gifts that defines us. From the start of his career right to this somewhat bitter end, Murray acted on the theory that you have an obligation to give every last drop of yourself to maximise the talents you happen to possess. If it tears you apart, if it makes audiences squirm, if it ends up breaking you, that is fine. To compromise your gift is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness: thus spoke Andy.

That principle was obvious right at the start, when he came to the nation’s attention by vomiting. He did so on the pretty courts of Queen’s Club in London in the course of their annual pre-Wimbledon tournament. Commentators routinely say of a wholehearted performance: “He left everything out there”. Murray more or less literally did. And established a pattern.

He was a teenager with a personal fiefdom over the word “gangly”, having prodigiously outgrown his strength. He had a strange barbed wire haircut and his public utterances were little more than assorted bagpipe noises. His talent was obvious; his level of commitment – well, that was a little frightening.

Above all, he was – and remained – a person that no one had got at. He avoided media training, preferring to say things that were both interesting and truthful. He was a person with a genuine moral centre, something that became increasingly apparent in maturity with his growing confidence.

Certainly the Lawn Tennis Association never got at him. He did practically all of it without them: him and his family. But he saw at the age of 15 that he needed more, so he left home. Andy was playing when he was three and competing at five, but it was not enough. So he went to Spain and trained at Sanchez-Casal Academy. His parents found £40,000 to finance the project. There was not a lot of compromising going on.

I was there in Basel when Murray, still only 19, overtook Tim Henman and became British number one. “I’ve passed the baton,” Henman said. “Or is it the torch? Whatever it is, I’ve passed it on.”

So now it was Murray taking the nation through those Wimbledon afternoons: those long, dark teatimes of the soul in which Murray would make us think that one day, he might win the damn thing – but it would never be easy.

When you’re trying to reach the top in sport, you usually have a champion in your way. At rare times, there are two of them: Borg-McEnroe, Connors-Lendl. Fate chose to put together three of the greatest players that ever swung a racket, all at the same time: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic. In any other era Murray would have won seven or eight slams.

Murray made this trio a Fab Four, but he was always Ringo. Still, every album has its Ringo Track. Murray’s turn must come – mustn’t it?

I flew to Melbourne not once but twice to watch him in the final of the Australian Open, and I flew to New York for a semi-final at the US Open. He never won a set. The specialist tennis writers wanted me barred as a bad omen. Frustrating for them, frustrating for me – what was it like for Murray?

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Dunblane residents celebrating their local hero

Murray was always being knocked down, but like the wobbly man in the nursery, he always got back up. The frustrations motivated him, even if English tennis followers could never make up their minds if they actually liked him. Eventually – buoyed by his gold medal at the London Olympic Games of 2012, in which a gloriously partisan crowd cheered him without ambiguity – he won the first grand slam tournament, the US Open, in the same year.

The following year he reached the final at Wimbledon. About halfway through that match, I wrote in my notebook: “Bloody hell he’s going to do it in straight sets.” And he did.

By this time most of the English sniffiness about Murray had gone. His vow to support “whoever England were playing” at the World Cup was now understood as the Palaeolithic banter it was; his mad “let’s do it” tweet on the eve of the Scottish referendum was accepted as, well, just Murray. He is allowed to be Scottish when he wins.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all was Murray’s gradual ascent to a plateau of serenity. Well, serene by his own not exactly lofty standards. In 2015 he married his long-time partner Kim Sears. He was coached by Amelie Mauresmo: yes, a real woman. Murray’s feminism was utterly straightforward: simply no idea why anyone should have a problem.

That year he did something that made winning Wimbledon look easy: he led Britain to victory in the Davis Cup, the ultimate test of bottle in tennis. The following year he won the Olympic gold medal again, and his second Wimbledon title. As the autumn unfolded in an insane frenzy of tournaments that Murray couldn’t stop winning, he pushed himself beyond all reason to secure the year-end number one spot, the first British player to manage this since the rankings system began in 1973. It was official: Murray was the best male (Murray would insist on that qualification) tennis player on the planet.

He was never the same again. He was always a spendthrift of himself, and this time, after giving everything once too often, there was no easy replenishment. In the glory of the moment the endgame had begun.

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Murray wins Wimbledon for the first time with victory over Novak Djokovic in 2013

He was an elite sportsman who, through his own force of will, remained a real human being, and that’s rare. What’s more, he always believed that being on the right side matters as much, if not more, than being on the winning side, and that’s even rarer.

Sport is the theatre of cruelty: that’s the secret of its eternal appeal. But at the same time, sport is essentially and perfectly frivolous. As Boris Becker famously said when he was knocked out of Wimbledon: “I lost a tennis match. Nobody died.”

Murray was brought up in circumstances that meant he could never confuse tennis with life-and-death matters. He never had to struggle for perspective, for balance. But the gifts you’ve been given – well, by God, you’d better make the most of them. And of all his achievements, perhaps the greatest of all is these days the name of Dunblane can raise – among many other things – a little spark of joy in those who hear it. Dunblane? That’s where Andy came from.

Top picture: Andy Murray with the under-14 trophy at the National Junior Championships in 1999 / Getty Images