25 June 2006

The nation is set for a bumpy, yet glorious, relationship with its new tennis child.

He is the tennis son and brother we thought we might never have. In our hearts we always knew that the worst thing about these past years of Henman and Rusedski was the thought that sometime soon they would not be around for us to moan at. Especially with no Briton seeded at Wimbledon, for the first time in 10 years. Along comes Andy Murray, and our sporting home can happily moan again.

“Fears continue,” a national news bulletin announced gloomily last Thursday evening, “about Andy Murray’s form.” The nation’s new tennis child had just lost in three sets and a howling gale in the third round at Nottingham. What’s more, he had cursed under his breath and thrown his racket around when things went pear-shaped in the final set. Tut-tut, that will never do at Wimbledon.

But of course it will. Part of the bond formed so instantly between Britain (yes, we can adopt Scotland quick enough when we want to) and Master Murray last summer was the sense of shambolic indiscipline that matched his outrageous talent. He might be beating the big boys to get to the third round at Wimbledon and Queen’s but half the time he looked as much in need of a doctor as a coach – wobbling in the Stella, wilting at Wimbledon.

The boy couldn’t be eating properly. Perhaps he ought to have a better breakfast, stop wasting time with his Playstation, maybe even cut his hair. This ‘Kevin the unhealthy teenager’ image has been reinforced for us in the fleeting non-Wimbledon moments when tennis takes the attention. Murray was sick on court in a five-setter at the US Open, he got injured just before the Davis Cup and could only play doubles, and he began last week by needing five minutes of treatment to his right leg mid-match at Nottingham.

He even got censured for that most shocking of sports offences – the ‘audible obscenity’. Gosh, now we really do have almost the perfect ‘vulnerable bad boy’ image to fuss about as Wimbledon looms. All we need is for him to be knocked out in the first round, as he was in both the Australian and French Opens this year, and the cry can go up “whatever’s happened to Andy Murray?” or better still, the bar-room’s perennially least-deserved question whenever Henman finally exited, “why is he so useless?”

The true excitement is the talent and potential that lie beneath, the hardly-breathed thought that this boy in our tennis house might actually be the real thing. Didn’t the head of the LTA say only a week ago that Andy Murray was “our prize asset”? Didn’t we see it for ourselves when Murray lined up against Max Mirnyi, the fabled ‘Beast of Belarus’, at Nottingham on Wednesday.

The point of this match was not that Andy Murray won it (7-6, 6-4) but how much it told us about him. For a start, the very first glimpse reminds you that this is still an immature physical specimen. The 28-year-old Minsk-born Max gets his ‘Beast’ nickname because of his hunk-like 6ft 5in, 14½-stone frame which can thunder down untouchable 140 mph serves. Opposite him, 19-year-old Andy can hardly pack 11 stone into his still unfilled 6ft 1in frame. He had a big supporting boot on his left ankle. He looked like a gangly puppy in front of a lion.

For three games he played like one, his spiky face squinting out geekily under the white cap as the Beast’s thunderbolts crashed past. He may have been playing tennis since he was three, have first played abroad (in Rouen) when he was nine, and won the US Open Juniors at 17, but this is still very much an adolescent athlete. He will need at least a stone of meat and muscle before he gets anywhere near the maturity of the 6ft 1in, but 13½ stone Rafael Nadal, only 11 months his senior.

But then the innate competitive intelligence began to take over. He started to read the serve, that wonderful cross-court forehand twice left Mirnyi helpless and, best of all, a perfectly executed lob cast doubt on the Beast’s evident intention of crowding out the net.

On the first point of the tie-break Murray dared a drop shot and you could see the bafflement in Mirnyi. Into the second set and the increasing gale and the pattern continued. Murray had out-thought and out-played him. So next day Andy got blown over in the third set in even worse conditions by Andreas Seppi but on Wednesday we could see how Andy Murray took David Nalbandian to five at last year’s Wimbledon, how he beat Roddick and Hewitt on the way to that first ATP title at San Jose.

The question now is how do we and he cope with the fever of expectation? The answer is to realise how lucky both of us are to have it. For him the next two weeks will put him into the madness of the media forest fire. But he already knows that comes with the territory and that, tennis permitting, riches arrive to match the fame.

For us there will be plenty of our own family-type worries up ahead. He must get himself a coach and avoid a sense of powerful teenage willfulness that sometimes looms. But we only have to listen to the measured, self-deprecating maturity of his interviews to realise that part of his head is very much in tune. It will no doubt be, at times, a bumpy relationship. But it could be a glorious one. For us, to magnificently misquote Tennyson: “let there be less moaning at the bar.”

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