Commentary

Love him or hate him, Murray's profile skyrocketed

Despite being waxed in his first Grand Slam final, this was the week Andy Murray became a household name in Britain.

Updated: September 9, 2008, 10:59 AM ET
By Ian Whittell | Special to ESPN.com

Andy Murray Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesNational identity aside, Andy Murray's exposure in Great Britain was augmented by his first foray into a Grand Slam final.
LONDON -- Britain watched in vain late into the early hours Tuesday to see whether one of its sons could win a Grand Slam tennis title for the first time since 1936.

Yet the nation's response to Andy Murray as he slumped to straight-sets defeat in his U.S. Open final with Roger Federer at Flushing Meadows was clouded by history stretching back far further than 72 years.

The 21-year-old's profile, already creeping upward after some creditable performances at Wimbledon, skyrocketed in Britain in the days leading up to Monday's final meeting with his Swiss rival, but the response to Murray was curiously mixed.

Murray supposedly has let it be known that he is not British, that he is Scottish, and proud of it.

And although the subtleties of that distinction might be lost outside the United Kingdom (which is not the same as Great Britain, before you ask!), those historical differences are felt keenly by sports fans for whom games of football (aka soccer) or rugby between the English and Scots are played and watched with an enmity that makes Duke-UNC basketball or Michigan-Ohio State football look like little league.

Murray's problems stemmed from an interview he conducted, along with Englishman and former leading British pro Tim Henman, during the 2006 football World Cup.

Having been playfully mocked because Scotland had failed to qualify for that tournament in Germany, Murray was asked which team he would be supporting. "Whoever England are playing against," Murray joked.

British men Grand Slam
finals records

Since Fred Perry won the 1936 U.S. Championships, British men haven't fared well in Grand Slam finals.

Event Result
'08 U.S. Open R. Federer beat A. Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2
'97 U.S. Open P. Rafter beat G. Rusedski 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5
'77 Aussie Open (Dec.) V. Gerulaitis beat J. Lloyd 6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 3-6, 6-2
'38 Wimbledon D. Budge beat B. Austin 6-1, 6-0, 6-3
'37 French Open H. Henkel beat B. Austin 6-1, 6-4, 6-3

Unfortunately, by the time the voracious British tabloid press had taken that quote out of context, Murray was painted as a direct descendant of William Wallace (Mel Gibson's character in "Braveheart"), the Scottish leader who fought for independence from the English in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Before this year's Wimbledon, Murray -- whose relationship with the British media has not always been easy -- felt moved to explain: "I am not anti-English and I never was. I am Scottish. I am also British.

"I am patriotic and proud to be Scottish, but my girlfriend [Kim Sears] is English, my gran Shirley -- who I love to bits -- is English and half her family are English. My fitness trainer's English, my physio's English, some of my friends are English. I don't have a problem with English people at all."

Yet the perception persists that Murray does have such a problem, a situation that wasn't aided by the fact he complained about wearing the official GB uniform in the recent Olympic tennis tournament -- not because of its British insignia but because he prefers to play in his familiar Fred Perry shirts.

He also pulled out of playing for Britain in a Davis Cup tie with Argentina this year, concentrating instead on a tournament in Marseille, France, that he subsequently won.

The majority of callers to talk radio stations this weekend parroted the belief that Murray is anti-English and, with the English outnumbering the Scots 50.7 million to 5.1 million (from an overall UK population of 60.5 million), that can quickly reduce your fan base.

"I think that might be an issue for some people in England who choose to take it the wrong way," says John Colquhoun, a leading soccer agent and former member of the Scottish sports council. "In the same way, some Scottish people will get upset when he says he is British. It's all very small-minded because what he is is proud to be Scottish but proud to be British and those two things are not mutually exclusive."

Certainly, Murray's improved comfort and awareness with the media helped his P.R. cause at the U.S. Open, as did the presentation of broadcaster Sky Sports, which did a decent cheerleading job of rallying the country around him with clips of A-list celebrities such as Glenn Close, Will Ferrell, Alec Baldwin and Donald Trump singing our man's praises.

And, though the English reaction may have been confused, his native land has not seen a global sporting talent of this stature for some years.

"The reaction here is one of pure pride," adds Colquhoun, who played tennis recreationally at college, where he was coached by Murray's mother, Judy. "Our football team did not qualify for the European Championships and just lost a World Cup game in Macedonia; no golfer has won a major recently; and, for the first time in years, we do not have anyone on the Ryder Cup team.

"Our cyclist Chris Hoy won three gold medals at the Olympics and he helped, but now we have Murray, a sportsman at the very top of his game on the world stage. Even though he was easily beaten, there is a feeling he's ready to turn the big three at the top of the sport into a big four.

[+] EnlargeFred Perry
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesThe iconic Fred Perry is the only acceptable standard for the Brits, who have been longing for a men's Grand Slam champion for 72 years.
"It's a miserable autumnal night here in Scotland, and it's a Monday, so it's not as though pubs were full of people watching the final, but every radio station, every newspaper, has him as its lead bulletin."

Although a tennis match that started at 10:30 p.m. in Britain was not going to see fans flocking into pubs in the same way they will to watch Wednesday's crucial World Cup qualifying road games between Croatia and England or Iceland and Scotland, the media attention and buildup to the final was intense and wholly favorable.

"There is an element of Britain embracing Murray, despite him," says Lawrence Donegan, a respected sports writer for The Guardian, and a Scotsman, who was at Flushing Meadows. "But he has matured. This week, there has been no racket abuse, no bad language, no awkward monosyllabic press conferences.

"It is easy to forget how young he still is and, also, the most exposure he receives is at Wimbledon every year, when the pressure on any British player with a modicum of talent is unbearable."

That Wimbledon phenomenon lies at the heart of the sport of tennis in Britain. For two weeks every summer, tennis dominates a sporting landscape normally reserved for cricket and the omnipresent soccer at that time of year. Municipal tennis courts around the land remain packed during and shortly after "Wimbledon Fortnight" before the sport returns to its annual hibernation.

Yet Perry -- whose shirts are so beloved by Murray -- is the last Brit to win the Wimbledon men's singles, which he did shortly before winning the U.S. Open in 1936.

This is undoubtedly the week that Andy Murray has become a household name in Britain and when Brits -- English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish alike -- have acknowledged his electrifying potential.

If he ever actually succeeds in ending that 72-year drought -- especially if it is at Wimbledon -- Murray's national identity will never again be called into question.

Ian Whittell is a British freelance sports writer.