Braveheart who hammers points home

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For most 18-year-old’s it would have been a fantasy come true – a kiss from Miss Universe and then being handed a cheque for $45,000 (£25,300). But Andrew Murray, the most exciting newcomer in tennis this year, would not have dwelt long on those pleasant experiences after losing the final of the Thailand Open last Sunday.

Of more delight to the young Scot would have been a first senior tournament final – a match in which he faced the world’s best player, Roger Federer, and made him work for his win. As a consequence, Murray rose to 72 in the world rankings, in sharp contrast to the lowly 411 at which he began the year. Such a position would qualify him for the world’s four major tournaments – Wimbledon and the Australian, French and US Opens – and takes him close to automatic entry for the most important events below the big four.

To a tennis obsessive such as Murray – he is both a keen follower of the game and a hugely gifted player with a fierce determination to succeed – such career landmarks mean everything. His achievement in Bangkok also dispelled any doubts about his ability to compete at the highest level after a barnstorming seven months during which he had made a sensational Davis Cup debut and then soared up the rankings by exceeding all expectations at Wimbledon, the US Open and other tournaments.

Apart from Murray himself, no one will be more happy at his emergence than the British tennis establishment, for whom it is an immense relief. With the exceptions of Tim Henman and Canadian import Greg Rusedski, British tennis has been a lamentable success-free zone for too long.

The Lawn Tennis Association has the embarrassment of not producing a male singles champion of one of the four major tournaments since 1936 (Fred Perry), nor a woman winner since 1977 (Virginia Wade). This is despite enjoying an annual windfall from Wimbledon – some £25m in recent years – with which to develop the domestic game.

What marks Murray out from recent British hopefuls is not merely his ability, but also a steely confidence and intensity of purpose. As George Bastl, the experienced Swiss player who lost to him at Wimbledon and in Bangkok, says: “For a young player it was very surprising how strong mentally he was.”

The concept of being overawed does not seem to register on his radar. In Great Britain’s Davis Cup tie against Switzerland in Geneva last month, Murray faced Federer for the first time in the doubles. When receiving the great man’s first serve of the match, the teenager cheekily stepped into it and launched a winner down the line. Yet there is no arrogance – at the end of the match, which he and Rusedski lost, he told Federer: “It’s an honour to be on the same court as you.”

The strength of character has emerged from a childhood not without its traumas. In 1996 he survived the massacre at Dunblane school when a deranged gunman shot dead 16 children and a teacher. Murray’s parents also divorced.

But in his mother Judy, a former Scottish national tennis coach, he had the perfect mentor and the opposite of the stereotypical tennis dad or mum from hell. And his single-mindedness was demonstrated when, aged only 14, he decided to forsake the comforts of home for the alien environment of the renowned Casal-Sanchez tennis academy in Barcelona. For three years there he developed his game on clay courts, the surface that most demands good technique.

This dedication was rewarded by being the first Briton to win the US Open Junior title, just over a year ago. Few, however, took much notice, for bridging the chasm between junior and senior tennis can never be taken for granted.

But within nine months Murray had imposed his talent and personality on the game. The first really public airing was last March when he became, at 17 years and 293 days, the youngest to play Davis Cup for Britain. In the tie against Israel he partnered David Sherwood in the doubles and they beat Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, one of the world’s leading pairs, in front of a partisan Tel Aviv crowd. It was not just the unexpected victory that caught the imagination, but Murray’s manner. Winners were celebrated with pumping fists, leaps and yells, misses drew agonised expressions. To see a young British player display such determination and aggression was a breath of fresh air.

Come June, and “Murray mania” was born in Britain thanks to stirring performances at the Stella Artois tournament and Wimbledon, where he despatched supposed betters before being beaten only by top-20 ranked players. His epic third-round, five-set defeat by Argentine David Nalbandian on Centre Court attracted a television audience of 11m, who saw a teenager display audacious shots, enormous courage and the confidence to whip up the support of the home crowd, gesturing like an extrovert rabble-rouser.

Off the court he is a more reserved character, mature for his age and possessing a dry wit. He is also a proud Scot. When asked in Geneva about playing for Great Britain, he said: “I do not mind playing for Britain because Scotland is part of Britain. Just as long as no one [calls us] England.”

He is, however, sensitive to criticism and unafraid to hit back when aggrieved. Experienced British coaches Tony Pickard and Alan Jones, who guided the careers of Stefan Edberg and Jo Durie respectively, have received a public reprimand when Murray felt they had stepped out of line.

Another target is the British press, his distrust stemming largely from the treatment meted out to Henman for his failure to win a major title. His anger is apparent when discussing how “overrated footballers” are praised to the skies but a man who remained in the world’s top 10 for nearly a decade and reached six grand-slam semi-finals is lambasted.

Murray’s progress is such that his ambitions are changing almost by the week. In Geneva he was talking about getting into the world’s top 100. Now he is aiming for the top 50 early next year and even the top 20 by the end of it. To do that he will have to work on his weaknesses.

Already his service and forehand are formidable weapons, he is happy on all surfaces, and although primarily a baseliner is also adept at the net. But his mother believes he must improve his first-serve percentage, raise his fitness – at both Wimbledon and the US Open he suffered cramp in marathon matches – and learn to use his left hand more on the double-handed backhand to gain a greater range of angles. Filling out and strengthening his wiry, 6ft 2in frame will also reap dividends.

But who better to assess his talents than Federer. “I think he has a great future, and that is good for British tennis,” says the Swiss.

“He can play with the top players now and not just juniors, and that will improve him. He needs some time physically, he has struggled a bit with fitness, he has things to learn, but it will come.

And he added: “I think we are going to have some great battles in the future.”

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