Murray, Janowicz both beacons of national pride at Wimbledon

Friday July 5th, 2013

Andy Murray's emotion on the court is now matched by the passion of his British supporters.
Kieran Galvin/Icon SMI

WIMBLEDON, England -- Her voice was still hoarse from the day before, from all the cheering and shouting: Want has a way of tearing up the body. She had been on the big hill at the All England Club for the Verdasco torment, one small face in a sea of them, but now it was a day later and she stood alone, a grown woman at the top of the stairs. Andy Murray was coming up, his practice done. She held a small flag, gold with the red Scottish lion in the center, its claws bared and roaring.

Home is Aberdeen. Murray heard that in the accent, same as his, when Wendy Byres asked him to pose for a photo. Murray doesn't stop for many people at Wimbledon these days; he can't; he'd be swamped. But now came that old tug, giving him pause. "Can we do it away from all the other cameras?" he said. "Because otherwise I get in trouble for this sort of stuff, so..."

So Murray stood next to her and she held the flag, the "Lion Rampant" as the Scots call it. The camera clicked. "Everybody back home can't believe I'm getting this opportunity," Byres said after, eyes welling. "Him being at the top of this game is just wonderful -- even as British, never mind Scottish. But it makes it all the more special that he's from our neck of the woods."

So, yes, you can count on it, that they'll be out again in force when Murray plays Poland's Jerzy Janowicz on Friday, all colors of the country: Not just the red and gold, but red, white and Union Jack blue, and the white St. Andrew's Cross emblazoned on shirts and cheeks. There'll be flags on sticks stuck behind hairy ears, flags worn as shawls, flags flung and shaken as if tennis were a matter of national honor. The lament -- no British man has won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936 -- has taken on so large a life now that it's impossible to ignore. But the surprise is that it still matters at all.

Because tennis, more than any other sport today, shatters borders. Its tournaments range the globe; winning most prestigious of them crowns individuals, not countries. It is the ultimate expression of our merciless, the-earth-is-flat economy, of a celebrity culture that prizes personality over provinciality. Stars come from all over and then live somewhere else. Prodigies go anywhere and train with anyone who will make them better and make them rich: Maria Sharapova to Florida, Novak Djokovic to Germany. Murray, today's exemplar of sports patriotism, may get worked mercilessly by two British physios, but he shaped his game in Spain, works out daily with a Venezuelan hitting partner, and is coached by Czech legend Ivan Lendl.

Even as traditional powers Australia, France and the United States continue to search for a legacy-reviving star, fans increasingly pledge their allegiance based on plenty besides their passport. The world is passionately divided between Federer people -- many of whom reside in Great Britain -- and Nadal people, Serena or Maria people, and the leftovers cast their lots based on playing style, looks, demeanor, results or back-of-the-neck impulse. There were plenty of Americans who found Pete Sampras boring and, even into the final of last year's Wimbledon, plenty of Brits turned off by Murray's dour rages.

Indeed, the turnaround on Murray in the past year has been so quick, so flip, even, that it could make any outsider suspicious. Brits will tell you that it was the Scot's tears after losing to Federer in 2012 ("I'm getting closer!"), or his subsequent Olympic gold medal on British soil, or even the emotional pre-tourney TV interview that turned him into "Our Andy!" But coming as it did after his 2012 U.S. Open win, the palpable warming felt like a bandwagon-jump, a what-the-hell surrender to what now seems inevitable. The only person in Britain who hasn't changed his attitude about him, it seems, is Murray himself.

"Not a whole lot's changed," he said Wednesday. "I know if I had to finish my tennis career tomorrow, I'd be content that I won the U.S. Open. But I also wanted to try and win more. The fact that I'm still playing, giving myself the opportunity to play in the latter stages of these events, I want to try and win them. The pressure's still there. I put a lot of pressure on myself."

Then again, there's nothing that says the patriotic impulse has to follow logic, or constancy, or one sportswriter's jaded demand for purity. Because if this Wimbledon is any indication, the need to connect to something larger can hit at any time, even when least expected. And somewhere between Agnieszka Radwanska's springy inventiveness and the 22-year-old Janowicz's riveting ride into the semifinals, the meaning of Murray became clear.

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To understand, you have to know that American scribes aspire to a weary objectivity. Stories about a victorious Team USA sell, but we aren't supposed to cheerlead; nobody likes to fancy themselves above the fray. But, then, no professor, editor or colleague had ever trained me against a Polish invasion, either -- and such an advance, it turns out, was one that I had no chance of resisting.

On tour, of course, there had been hints for years. Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, current finalist Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber, both of Germany, had led a recent boomlet in players with Polish parentage. Last year at Wimbledon Radwanska became the first Pole to make a Grand Slam final, and Janowicz upended Murray en route to the final at the indoor stop in Paris. Yet something about Monday, after Janowicz and Lucasz Kubot had won to set up their quarterfinal -- the first ever all-Polish match at Wimbledon -- finally made the breakout hit home.

It wasn't that the 6-foot-8 Janowicz had been crushing serves clocked as high as 140 mph, or led the tournament in aces, or rolls his shoulders like Sampras in his prime. It wasn't even his backstory, which includes a financial struggle so severe that Janowicz was once forced to accept a charity pair of sneakers at the U.S. Open and, in 2006, even fended off an offer to renounce his nation and play for Qatar.

"In the beginning it was everything okay, because my parents were professional volleyball players so they had some money in the beginning, yeah?" Janowicz said of his junior career. "But if you have to invest only from your own pocket, it's not easy. You have to travel a lot, even as a junior you have to pay for coaches, pay for tickets. A ticket for Polish people to go to Australia is not that cheap, yeah? Poland is not a country like Great Britain. We're quite a poor little country. So after a while it was getting tougher and tougher."

No, it was the fact that, on Tuesday, a horde of Polish journalists had landed at Wimbledon, and I stumbled upon a bunch setting up a hokey shot of Janowicz and Kubot posing behind a Polish flag. And in that instant, amid all those broad faces, it all came rushing back: My great-grandmother's scary mustache, the smell of boiled kielbasa, the Christmas Eve exchange of oplatki with Polish "I-love-you's". Poland was the North Jersey butcher shop where my parents met as kids. Poland was the years spent laboring on a language that never took.

Until Thursday. On Thursday, I was able to put it to use for the first time -- the heritage that had faded with so many faces, the roots that had gone dry. It wasn't much.

"Dzien dobry," I said to Janowicz when we met, and he smiled and said it right back. Good day.

And it was. Because it became easy, at last, to see how a mere tennis player could cause a tightening in the chest, a stinging in the eyes, a need to show the colors and urge him to the finish. "He's going to win," Byres said of Murray. "Andy all the way." It became easy to see how a stranger could mean so much, just by hailing from the same neck of the woods.

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