As I write this I’m watching the Federer-Stifler men’s final at Wimbledon, and it’s not too bad. Usually I’m more interested in the women’s game, but unfortunately there’s been little interest this year, at least in the latter stages as the championship devolved into yet another Williams sisters bore-fest. What’s frustrating, for those of us who like to see competitive play, is that the top players have long since sussed out that the Williamses are far from unbeatable, even on grass, as long as you don’t let them sucker you into playing their game. Ah well, at least it will have pleased those people who moan every year about the East European “fembots”, who – as a group – get the sort of stick that would never be aimed at black players in this day and age.
But let’s talk about someone else who gets the fuzzy end of national stereotyping. Yes, it’s Andy Murray. I must admit that I like Murray more and more, not only because he’s become a really good player, but also because he has this endearing quality of not being an identikit national hero. He’s a bit too focused on winning for the British taste. He gives the impression of being a bit surly – much to the distress of those dozy fans who complain that he doesn’t smile enough – but actually has a sarcastic streak that I rather like. He’s got a very dry sense of humour, sometimes too dry for those who are apt to take his jokes as being deadly serious. And he doesn’t care much about being popular – he’s supposed to be an athlete, after all, not a TV personality.
But it’s his Scottishness that’s probably the biggest obstacle to the Middle England public taking him to their hearts. Tune in to popular fora like The Wright Stuff or Loose Women, and as soon as Murray’s name is mentioned, you just know you’re going to get twenty minutes of people running him down, not for his performances on court, or even (mostly) his dourness, but rather because of his ethnicity. And there are some people who will never let him live down what he said three years ago about the World Cup – the football World Cup, that is, not anything to do with his own sport.
In an excellent column, Martin Samuel takes up the story:
There was only one moment that Andy Murray appeared troubled on the day of his latest Wimbledon victory.
It was during the post-match press conference when he was asked what team he would be supporting in the Ashes.
Murray’s shoulders sagged and his forearm sank until it was resting on the table in front of him. It remained there for several seconds.
Murray knew what his inquisitor was really asking. ‘So, Jocko, how much do you hate the English? Enough to cheer on the Aussies, I bet, you kilt-wearing, shortbread-munching, miserable Scottish pillock!’
I don’t have a huge amount of patience for those Scots who spend all their time blaming the English for their woes – which is why Alex Salmond’s attempts to put a positive stress what Scots could achieve are appealing – but this is the sort of tomfoolery that would wind anyone up. It’s a bit like the way Scottish athletes remain Scottish when they lose, then mysteriously become British when they win.
Off the tennis court, Murray can’t win.
If he says he will cheer the England cricket team, he sounds like a sap who has been bullied into playing a silly media game; if he deadpans that he will cheer the Aussies, all points south of Berwick-upon-Tweed will have conniptions and take an off-the-cuff remark literally, because that is what happened the last time – when he joked that he would be supporting whoever were the England football team’s opponents in the World Cup.
Even if he tells the truth – which is, in all probability, that being Scottish and a tennis player on the brink of one of the biggest matches of his career he could not give two stuffs about cricket – it will still be viewed in some quarters as a snub to England.
Yet Tim Henman would have been wrong-footed, too, if, as he prepared to face Goran Ivanisevic in his semi-final in 2001, some bright spark had sought to discover his loyalties when Scotland played Croatia in an upcoming World Cup qualifier.
Henman did not need to pass such tests, however, because he was never placed on trial over his national identity. He was allowed to play tennis and be himself.
It was all so much simpler with Tim, wasn’t it? Middle England didn’t have any complications in dealing with Tim, because he was one of them. There’s a sort of concept of “Britishness” that sees Englishness – or a particular vision of Middle England – as being normative, while it’s the Scots who always have something to prove.
So this is no longer about what Murray says or how he feels about the union. This is about us, the English, and our attitude to getting behind a normal lad from Dunblane.
A lot of people are hiding behind the three-year-old joke that Murray made to justify their prejudices because, by now, if you still hate Andy Murray, it is not because he is anti-English but because you are anti-Scottish.
His famous remark, first reported in this newspaper, has since been analysed to death. It was made in response to teasing from Henman and an English reporter about Scotland’s failure to make it to the 2006 World Cup.
Something along the lines of: ‘So, who will you be supporting then, mate?’ Answer: ‘Anybody your lot are playing, pal.’
And that was all it was. A crack, a gag, a snappy rejoinder.
Yes, and having let himself be goaded into it by Henman and Des Kelly, he’ll never be allowed to forget it.
Since when, despite public statements about his English girlfriend, his English home, his English friends, English business advisors and even an English grandmother, Murray has been treated like a latter-day William Wallace, rampaging south with a Head racket in his hand and a chip on his shoulder.
His best bet, you know, is really just to laugh this off. I mean, Gordon Brown has tried to ingratiate himself with the Sasanach electorate by professing his deep love of the England football team, but nobody really believes it. Nor have his efforts to construct a narrative of “Britishness” shielded Brown from a barrage of Scottophobia south of the border. His very Scottishness seems to provoke that kind of reaction in some quarters, almost regardless of his politics.
But back to Murray:
There are no national anthems played at Wimbledon, no reason a competitor should be wrapped in the flag.
It is the fact that our tennis has been mired in decades of ineffectuality that has made Murray so important.
And this is important, because even though you don’t compete for a nation at Wimbledon, you can still carry with you the hopes of a nation. The East European women players all mingle together and don’t go in for nationalist chest-beating, but it helps to realise that, for instance, Ana Ivanović and Jelena Janković are enormous celebrities in their native Serbia, idolised by huge numbers of young girls, some of whom may be troubling the rankings themselves in years to come. Yet lots of Brits seem to swing between either expecting the impossible from their athletes and then excoriating them for failing to do the impossible, or else preferring to wallow in endearing crapness than celebrate success.
As Martin concludes about Murray:
He, in turn, has done his bit. He says he is equally proud to be from Scotland and from Britain.
If that is not good enough, we are the ones with the problem, not him.
Quite so. But I suspect that, if he does actually win a Slam soon, many critical fans will start warming up to him. Tennis fans are funny that way.