Wimbledon is more than three weeks away, but already I can feel an attack of Murrayitis coming on. For non-sufferers, I can reveal that this is a chronic condition and one that can only be cured by a studious avoidance of professional tennis. For some people it’s the onset of hay fever that casts a pall over spring. For me, it’s the advent of the European tennis season, bringing with it the now familiar and incredibly tedious question: “Can Andy Murray win a Grand Slam?”
Let me explain: I love tennis, or at least I used to. Back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s there was a glorious era when Britain’s male tennis players could largely be ignored from one Wimbledon to the next. Of course, John Lloyd, Andrew Castle, or Jeremy Bates might rock the boat by winning the odd round of our annual grass-court jamboree. But they would quickly be despatched back to Loserville (or the BBC commentary box), leaving me free to revel in the exploits of true greats like Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras.
Those days of sublime skills now seem like a golden era. It was a period in which the men’s singles at Wimbledon wasn’t reduced to endless speculation about British hopes of reclaiming the trophy last won by Fred Perry back in 1936. It couldn’t last. In 1996 “Tiger” Tim Henman arrived on the scene, reaching the Wimbledon quarter-finals and igniting the hopes of a nation. The dark era of tennis viewing known as “Timbledon” had begun.
Tim had a brief flirtation with being a tennis bad boy in 1995, when he was disqualified from Wimbledon for throwing a strop and striking a ball girl — with a tennis ball. A bit feeble, really. John McEnroe, or Jeff Tarango would surely have thrown her into the stands and done some real damage. But this incident proved to be an aberration. The nice but dull Tim then spent the next decade flashing his unattractive teeth, saying “urr” a lot during interviews and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against unheralded opponents.
He never won a Grand Slam and, most frustratingly for home fans, failed to reach the final of Wimbledon. The British media and a large section of the populace remains convinced that Tim would have won the title in 2001, but for (unpatriotic) weather raining on his parade and interrupting his epic semi-final with Goran Ivanisevic. No one (except me) seems to have even considered the possibility that our man might have gone on to lose in the final to Aussie Pat Rafter, a man who won two US Open titles.
As Tim’s career entered its twilight years I entertained a brief fantasy that life might return to normal and that my favourite sport might once again be bearable to watch on BBC TV. Fat chance. In 2005, just as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were tying on their headbands and getting ready to dominate the sport, along came Dunblane’s Mr Grumpy.
Andy Murray, or “the Murrayman” as one of my friends has not-so-affectionately dubbed him, looked as though he was going to be the real deal. Unlike Tim, who had that attractive but fragile serve and volley game, Murray was equipped with an arsenal of strokes that would soon propel him up the rankings.
Does it sound incredibly churlish to say that Britain’s Great Tennis Hope clearly lacked Rafa’s sex appeal or Roger’s genius? He was also encumbered with a breathtakingly dim-witted elder brother, Jamie, who won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 2007. But the real problem, even for the success-starved British media, was Murray’s surly personality.
Now as someone who grew up watching two of tennis’s biggest moaners, McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, I should have been able to overlook this minor fault in one of our own. I tried to feel sympathetic about his (not supporting the) England football team gaffe during the 2006 World Cup. I could see why he moaned about the new roof at Wimbledon last year. I could even understand why he chose to skip a crucial Davis Cup tie in March, thus consigning the team to an ignominious defeat against Lithuania.
But I guess I’m just very superficial. A tennis star who doesn’t wear a colourful bandana with panache, doesn’t have an all-year-round tan and doesn’t win big is just not going to get away with being such a five-star whinger. So, as the French Open continues and the British press deludes itself into believing that Federer and Nadal could both be beaten, Murray’s progress through the draw pains me.
Already this week I have watched him sulk in his chair during changeovers and berate the umpire about his opponent’s slow play, or the fact that someone removed his energy drink without permission. Then today there was a litany of complaints about the fact that his rackets had not been strung to his satisfaction.
He’s young, rich, successful, utterly charmless and constantly in my face. So, I must mute the TV sound, or just turn off altogether until that happy day when the Murray era ends and another Great British Hope (probably Laura Robson) arrives to take his place.