One of my greatest inspirations over the past few years has been Andy Murray. I know, controversial; that grumpy Scottish bloke, who earns millions and still struggles to crack a smile. Yes, I do mean that Andy Murray.
He’s always been in a strange position in his sport. Revered in his success, but disliked by many for his attitude, his manner, what he does do, what he doesn’t do. It’s so strange to have achieved as much as he has, but still have so many doubters in his own country.
In contrast, the wonderful Roger Federer (and I say that with genuine affection), is always smiling, polite, happy and calm. The man is so centred, I’m amazed he doesn’t spend his breaks at Wimbledon in ‘down dog’, ending each set with a quick ‘Namaste’. He is loved, by not just his own country, but by the whole world. Is this just because he’s unswervingly handsome, smiles all the time, wears shorts just slightly tighter than they need to be, and says all the right things when a camera is on him? Yes, that’s probably it.
In the case of Andy Murray, he doesn’t smile like Roger, and isn’t so calm and centred, so he’s viewed very differently. And I feel he’s been done a real disservice.
In the past week there really has been an outpouring of support for this icon of British sport, for his determination to play through the pain, and in empathy for his early retirement from the game on the grounds of his health. But it only took a couple of days for the knives to come out.
Andy spoke his mind in an interview, essentially talking about his hopes for a legacy in the British game, and the lack of opportunity there is for young people in this country to play tennis. This was cited by some news organisations as him criticising the Lawn Tennis Association, sounding warnings and making a fuss – essentially, he was back in a negative news cycle. But he’s right!
The lack of opportunity for young people to play tennis in this country, is the reason we spent more than 70 years waiting for a British man to win a grand slam, and why, although we have a few British ‘hopefuls’ at the minute, I’m not entirely sure whether Konta, Edmumd or the other Murray will ever make it to the dizzy heights Andy managed to.
Of course he and his brother were lucky. Growing up they had an incredibly dedicated mother, a competitive tennis player herself, who coached both boys from the age of three, before finding someone to see their talent, and nurture it to the level they have both achieved. Not many people have a former competitive tennis player as a mother, so we need schools and local leisure centres to step in.
I went to a normal comprehensive school, and in PE, we spent most weeks either playing netball, benchball, rounders, or at a push badminton, the occasional attempt at gymnastics, and (when the sun came out) outdoor athletics. We had tennis courts, but I don’t ever remember in my five years of doing PE, actually seeing nets go up, or any attempt being made to produce a tennis racket.
As parents, we’re taking our two little monsters for tennis lessons at the Nottingham Tennis Centre. It came at Eddie’s request, essentially because he likes to hit things with a racquet, and I’d rather he learned to hit a ball than my shins or Erin’s head.
It doesn’t cost much more than swimming lessons, it’s made lots of fun for them at this age, and gives them a chance to learn a fantastic new skill.
So far they’re really enjoying it and doing well. But when you mention your children are going to tennis lessons, the general reaction is “Ooh how very middle class of you” or “wow, that’s a bit posh isn’t it?”
Sadly it does sound very middle class, and yes, some of the families we have met are wearing North Face jackets and armed with a Macchiato, but not all. A number of the parents are European, Chinese or American. To them, it’s completely normal to take the children to learn how to play tennis, it’s just like a swimming lesson.
The experience has taught me that we really lag behind in this country when it comes to certain sports. We pigeon hole activities and make them almost inaccessible, because of the way we were taught at school, and the opportunities we had on our doorstep.
We still have to drive twenty minutes across town to take the children to tennis, and although it’s a fantastic facility, it would of course be easier to have something nearby. But I can’t see anything like that happening any time soon. For now, this one’s up to us.
The children may decide against it, or they could have inherited their mother’s hand to eye coordination, and if that’s the case, then they’re scuppered. But if they have a talent, if they have something there that’s worth nurturing, then I want to do our best to encourage it.
Andy Murray’s right. We’re doing this ourselves, without any encouragement from school, without any online advertising for lessons, tennis summer camps, local events taking place. There’s very little out there.
Whether it is the fault of the LTA, or even the Government, Sport England, all the other organisations in charge of driving forward sporting opportunities. Whoever it is, maybe it does need someone like Andy Murray, who isn’t always smiles and a gentle character, to stand up for the sport he loves and ask for something to be done. I suspect the coming years will show us his drive to have an impact, and leave a legacy. If he can’t be at the top of his game any longer, I believe he genuinely wants to see someone else in Britain achieve that.
Andy has been an inspiration to me ,and now to my children – who I was delighted to find searching for his Australian Open match on YouTube yesterday. If I am one day watching my boy or girl from the stands, I’ll know just how proud Judy has felt, watching his career sky rocket, since he was knee high to a Scottish grasshopper.
Game, set, match!