The recently knighted Scotsman and new world-number-one-ranked tennis player, Andy Murray, will be entering the Australian Open with his confidence sky-high, looking to start this year just as he ended the last. After defeating Novak Djokovic in the end-of-season ATP Tour final in November and, perhaps most crucially, in the process, finishing above him in the world rankings, this might represent Murray’s best chance of winning “down under” after eleven previous attempts. In the event’s history, Murray is one of the best players ever to have not won here, despite reaching five finals (2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2016). All except for 2010 when he lost to Roger Federer, Murray has been defeated by Djokovic. This year, for a change, Murray will enter the event as top-seed and favourite, which is a position he has tended to relish.
Murray’s rise to the pinnacle of men’s tennis has been nothing short of inspirational, competing amongst possibly the greatest quartet of players in the open era, but statistically as the least accomplished of what has been called “the big four”, of Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray. Coming of age now, at 29, proving that he has deserved to be among them all along is all the more remarkable when taking into account his most challenging burden, that is, being British. Indeed, so heavy was the personal pressure on Andy Murray to win Wimbledon – a definitive British cultural “institution” – that when he finally achieved this in 2013, he entitled his autobiography ‘Seventy-Seven’, as a nod to the number of years since the last British male player won the singles event: Fred Perry in 1936. Countless other top British players have failed to win this most coveted prize and subsequently suffered the ignominy of being considered “failures”, despite having had otherwise successful careers. Andy Murray is a cut above the others though, more consistent and accomplished, yet his popularity in Britain has ebbed and flowed throughout his career, partly due to shifting contexts surrounding his proud Scottish identity, and the dominance of English cultural ideals that tennis enjoys in Britain.
While Murray’s earliest taste of national burden came in 2005 during his first Wimbledon Championships, his first taste of fickle British patriotism and the double standards of being Scottish came the following summer when Murray, still just 19 years-of-age, was asked what nation he would be supporting during the upcoming Football World Cup. Quite cheekily, Murray answered: ‘whoever England is playing against’. Given Scotland’s recent moves toward political devolution – culminating in 1998 in the creation of a separate Scottish parliament – and the declining image of England and “Englishness” in the contexts of pervasive Euro-scepticism, rising right-wing extremism in England and the sustained anti-Blair movement following the British Prime Minister’s decision to invade Iraq, the joke was considered by many to have been made in bad taste. The London-based press had a field day, inviting correspondence from the general public, who condemned Murray’s words and labelled him, quite unfairly it turned out, as “unpatriotic” and “anti-English”.
In time, Murray slowly battled his way back into the hearts of the British (majority English) public, reaching the 2012 Wimbledon final against Federer but losing – which preceded an endearing tearful on-court interview – before winning gold (men’s singles) and silver (mixed doubles) medals in the London Olympics, followed by the US Open and then Wimbledon, at last, the following July. At the end of 2013, he won the much-coveted BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award, which seemed to suggest his public approval was now assured.
Burned from his previous comments on matters related to national identity, Murray initially steered clear of taking sides in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, but just before the polls closed, he tweeted a message in support of independence, which launched a further backlash against the Scot. Some of the messages tweeted in response were described by Police Scotland as ‘vile’; one referred to the Dunblane massacre in 1996 that Murray and his brother Jamie were part of but escaped unharmed.
The following summer, rather poetically, Murray went on to lead Great Britain to its first Davis Cup since 1936 (winning all 11 of his rubbers in the tournament) – which landed him a second BBC SPOTY award – and then in 2016 won the Wimbledon singles title again and successfully defended his Olympic gold medal for Britain in Rio. No one seemed to question his British allegiance when victorious; indeed, through his achievements to become the new world-number one, the British public, for a third time, voted him the 2016 BBC SPOTY on December 18th, and Murray received the ultimate honour from the Queen, in a knighthood two weeks later. Five years ago, Murray summed up his precarious position as a Scotsman representing Britain in a sport of most cultural significance to the English, when he answered, after being asked while appearing on a BBC comedy show whether he was British or Scottish, ‘Depends whether I win or not’. For many, this sums up the precariousness of Murray’s national identity, and Murray, for his part, seems unable to completely control the direction that the narrative takes in the media. If he is indeed “British” if he wins and “Scottish” if he loses, then Murray is certainly hoping he is considered “British” in Melbourne next week.
In Australia, Murray has, throughout his career, competed without the shackles of “national feeling”, yet in an atmosphere akin to a home crowd. In Seventy-Seven, Murray (2013: 56) admitted: ‘The crowd in Australia has always been excellent to me’; referring specifically to his 2011 challenge: ‘they were brilliant … virtually on my side. I didn’t feel like there was a huge difference between playing at Wimbledon and playing in Melbourne’.
Post-Brexit, with the identity politics surrounding Scotland’s status in Britain likely intensifying Murray’s cursed – though some would say envious – position as both a Scot and a Brit, and having to represent one, the other, or both at times, the Aussie crowds will likely take a far less equivocal stance on Murray. Enjoying unrelenting support in Melbourne, Murray has been known to attract tennis’s version of the England cricket team’s “Barmy Army”, with a particular vocal section of the crowd, dubbed “the Andy Boys”, singing famous songs with Murray’s name switched into the lyrics, e.g. Mambo No. 5 becomes “Murray Number Five”. Undoubtedly, it is Murray’s hope that strong support will help will him to reach another final, where he can translate his status as “crowd favourite” into “on-court favourite” and win the day. At the start of 2017 there is no doubt that “burying the ghost” in Melbourne, and laying to rest any fruitless discussions of his national identity in the process, will represent possibly his most formidable challenge yet.
Dr. Robert J. Lake is in the Department of Sport Science at Douglas College, Canada. His research interests revolve around the sport of tennis, its history and culture, particularly in relation to issues of social class and exclusion, gender, race/ethnicity, national identity, coaching, talent development and policy. He is the author of A Social History of Tennis in Britain (Routledge, 2015), which recently won the Lord Aberdare Literary Prize awarded by the British Society of Sport History. More information, including a detailed list of publications, can be found at: http://www.douglascollege.ca/programs-courses/faculties/science-technology/sport-science/faculty/rob-lake His publications can be found, free to read/access, at: https://douglas.academia.edu/RobertJLake