Andy, Champion of the World

Andy Murray posing in front of a trophy
From: www.wimbledon2016results.com

In some ways, it seems ironic that tennis world No. 1 Andy Murray should win his third Sports “Personality” of the Year award. Unfortunately for the dour Scot, he makes Courtney Wood (Sunday’s Apprentice runner-up) – or, for that matter, a damp rag – look charismatic. Still, it is difficult to overstate that for what Murray lacks in expression, he compensates for in sheer perseverance, hard work and a thirst for victory. In just five months since losing the French Open final, Murray has overturned a deficit of 8,000 ranking points to replace Novak Djokovic as men’s tennis world number one. Chris Hoy is right; we are in the presence of Scotland’s greatest ever sportsperson, an accolade justly rewarded last night. Unless the western world suddenly rediscovers common sense on January 1st, I’d propose that Murray is our only solace for the ominous year ahead. The boy from Dunblane should live up to his messianic billing.

In an era dominated by three giants of the game of tennis: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic (the latter, until 7th November, world No.1 for 122 consecutive weeks), I doubted whether Murray would ever reach that fabled, historical position. It always seemed that commentators talked of a “Big Four” out of sympathy for the Brit, an apologia for an extraordinarily talented generation. As late as June, it was unfathomable that Murray would make any sort of impression at the top of the game, having been hindered since first reaching the No. 2 spot in July 2009. Given how the game has changed over the years, it is impossible to compare the Scot to a McEnroe, Sampras, or Börg, but one can’t help feeling that in earlier generations, Murray would finally get his chance to dominate.

Nonetheless, capitalising on a slight physical and mental deterioration for Novak - experiencing shock early losses at Wimbledon and the Olympics - Andy has finally broken through at the age of 29. In the immediate aftermath of Brexit and England’s ignominious exit from the Euros, a reporter asked him how it felt to be Britain’s “last hope”, and with characteristic humility, he replied, “It’s not that bad, is it?”. But evidently, he thrived under that expectation, winning eight titles from Queen’s Club to Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the ATP World Tour Finals (a fantastic experience if ever you have a spare £40 to relinquish). The final five victories arrived in the space of six weeks, giving Murray a 24-match winning streak which looked doubtful after successive losses in the US Open quarter-final (to Kei Nishikori) and the Davis Cup (to Juan Martín del Potro). The mantle of “unbeatable” has inexplicably passed from Djokovic to the Brit, giving me hours of joyful procrastination in the process.

Andy’s improved mindset is critical to his success. As his coach Jamie Delgado commented, the birth of his daughter Sophia in February seems to have refreshed the Scot’s drive and desire for further glory, but also tempered the losses. The stability and importance of home life gives the Scot a perspective beyond tennis, lacking with Djokovic after he secured the Career Grand Slam with his French Open victory. I would also comment that the addition of Delgado, and return of the expressionless Ivan Lendl to Murray’s coaching team, has reshaped the Scot’s psychological approach to key matches and points. Under previous coaches Björkman and Mauresmo, he seemed more likely to slip into bouts of self-doubt – long lapses in concentration which cost him matches. Lendl seems the sort to give Murray a good bollocking, frankly, if this happens.

After such an accomplished year, Andy’s third Sports Personality title never looked in doubt; so confident was I that I bet my mother the princely sum of £1. It is a shame, nonetheless, when one considers the wealth of talent shortlisted after a record-breaking Olympic year. I particularly feel for Nick Skelton, the 58-year-old equestrian who has devoted four decades to the sport and may never get another chance to be rewarded. (NB: underestimating the appeal of his story, I also wagered £1 that he would rank outside the top three, meaning that mum and I came out of the night on even terms.) Indeed, Kim Murray appears to have broken ranks with her husband in choosing Skelton, a risky strategy with Christmas on Sunday.

Otherwise, the SPOTY shortlisted talent for 2016 was unprecedented: Alistair Brownlee, Mo Farah, Max Whitlock, Nicola Adams, Adam Peaty, and that enviable “perfect” couple, the Kennys, improving on their medal haul of London 2012 in Rio. The achievements of Paralympians Sophie Christiansen, Kadeena Cox, and Dame Sarah Storey are magnified in the face of debilitating physical challenges. Kate Richardson-Walsh’s captaining of the GB hockey team has helped greatly to boost the profile of women’s sport.

Here, however, I feel the nominations could have ended – without meaning to denigrate the accolades of Messrs Bale, Vardy, and Willett, it is hard to understand how they compare to the other 13 nominees. Footballers Gareth Bale and Jamie Vardy (perhaps the same could be said of Richardson-Walsh?) were certainly important to their respective teams, but did not single-handedly generate their success. History driven by the “Great Man” went out of fashion decades ago. Across 2016 as a whole, Bale only played 11 games for a British side, while Vardy has scored seven goals since June. The Leicester City Team of the Year award, for his contribution to the 2015-6 season, was more suitable. Danny Willett “only” won one golfing competition - the Masters in April – and has been in decidedly patchy form since. Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but these sportsmen have several leagues to jump before they reach the success of a Murray – either brother. Too often we forget Jamie, who in 2016 achieved year-end doubles team No. 1 with his partner Bruno Soares.

Returning to Andy, what can we expect for 2017? Tentatively, I would suggest a lot – already training in Miami, he is determined to keep that coveted No. 1 ranking. He could complete the Career Grand Slam with wins in Melbourne and at Roland Garros; I think two Grand Slam titles are an achievable goal, allowing for a resurgent Djokovic, and maybe a blossoming of world No. 3 Milos Raonic. There could be an old-school renaissance for Nadal (or even Federer?), or a #NextGen breakthrough, especially if Nick Kyrgios gets his act together. Still, Murray and Djokovic have more ranking points between then than the next five highest-ranked players combined; they ought to take the lion’s share of rewards in the next twelve months.

Of course, anything is possible. Maybe, with no experience whatsoever, I’ll make a surprise surge through men’s tennis. Ah damn! That only happens in politics.