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The Atlas of Britain

June 25, 2007
June 25, 2007

Table of Contents
June 25, 2007

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TENNIS
Jason Taylor

The Atlas of Britain

As Wimbledon approaches, Scotland's rapidly improving Andy Murray, like Tim Henman before him, bears the hopes of an entire tennis-mad kingdom on his slight shoulders

For all thetradition coursing through Wimbledon--the lords and ladies in the Royal Box,the queuing for grounds passes, the Pimm's cups with side orders ofstrawberries and cream--this may be the most hidebound ritual of them all:Everyone in Great Britain becomes irrationally optimistic at the prospect of ahomegrown male winning the tournament for the first time since Fred Perry in1936. And then, when the player doesn't prevail, the entire country reacts withdisproportionate anguish. When Tim Henman reached the Wimbledon semifinals in2002, a headline in the Daily Mirror read: NO PRESSURE, TIMBO, BUT CHOKE NOWAND WE'LL NEVER FORGIVE YOU. When Henman fell to eventual champion LleytonHewitt, the next day's headline was NATION OF LOSERS. Even the staid LondonObserver once described rooting for British players at Wimbledon as "anational spasm of patriotic agony."

This is an article from the June 25, 2007 issue Original Layout

Now, with Henmanon the brink of retirement, it's the turn of young, self-deprecating AndyMurray to carry the expectations of an entire nation on his relatively scrawnyshoulders. When Wimbledon begins on Monday, Murray will be the first-weekstory, generating more national interest than the other 255 competitorscombined. And in the unlikely event that Murray pulls out on the eve of thetournament (tendon damage to his right wrist forced him to miss the French Openand the grass-court tuneups for Wimbledon), he will still be the story--proofthat the big chair umpire in the sky really does have it in for OldBlighty.

If taking theWimbledon title is a tall order so long as Roger Federer, the four-timedefending champion, is in the draw, you could do worse than pin your hopes onMurray. This spring, a month before he turned 20, he infiltrated the top 10. Heplays well on grass. Plus, he has already recorded a win over the mightyFederer, in August 2006. "I mean, if Roger plays his best, it's pfft,"Murray says, mimicking the sound of his chances going up in smoke. "ButI'll at least believe I have a chance."

While Henman cutsa classic British figure, with his patrician upbringing and clipped speakingmanner--"tragically boring," London's Daily Telegraph once describedhim--Murray represents the new, multicultural Britain. He is an irony-loving,hip-hop-listening, text-messaging bloke from Scotland. His accent is straightout of Trainspotting (tren-SPOOT-in'), but he spent years training in Spain.There's no Merchant-Ivory gentility to him. When a young woman recently senther phone number to Murray's website, he wrote on his blog, "I'd appreciatea photo. You could be a complete stinker." If Henman is P.G. Wodehouse,Murray is Sacha Baron Cohen.

His combination oftalent and irreverence has made him immensely popular in England. Companiesseek him out for endorsements, to the tune of an estimated $20 million ayear, and he's already been the subject of several biographies. Britain's LawnTennis Association, recognizing Murray's potential to make his sport cool, hasallocated roughly $1 million a year to subsidize the salary of his coach, BradGilbert.

To call themarriage of Gilbert and Murray unlikely is to deal in understatement. Aself-described "Jewish redneck" from Oakland, Gilbert, 45, is a nonstopkibitzer who found success coaching Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick in partbecause he spoke their language, leaning on locker-room clichés and using U.S.sports figures as reference points. (Gilbert is the only man in tennis whocites "the A's under Billy Martin" during a discussion of backhands andforehands.) When Gilbert filibusters, Murray often looks like a sullen childannoyed with his dad. "There are times when you don't listen as much ashe'd like," says Murray, "but it's hard with someone who speaks as muchas that."

While Gilbert is aserial optimist, Murray has Charlie Brown's disposition, slouching around undera private black cloud. His defeatist on-court body language has been such asore point with Gilbert that the coach once said, "If you have to get madat someone out there, get mad at me." Murray sometimes obliges, muttering astring of expletives at his coach. "Hey," says Gilbert, "if ithelps him relax, I'm O.K. with it."

Regardless, theunion has produced dramatic improvements in both Murray's game and his ranking.The player has access to Gilbert's first-rate tennis mind and his manyconnections. When Murray ventured to Gilbert's home in Northern California lastwinter, he ran sprints at a local park with Olympic gold medalist MichaelJohnson. Murray's improved stamina has enabled him to take more risks on thecourt; his improved strength has given his serve more juice. "Sure, it tooka while to get used to [Brad's] methods," he says, "but everything'sgoing in the right direction."

As for Gilbert, heleft the comfort of the ESPN broadcast booth in part because he saw in Murray a21st century version of himself: a cerebral, slightly neurotic player with nosense of entitlement and a burning desire to improve. "He's 20, but he'sreally much more mature than that," says Gilbert. "Other athletes are20 going on 14."

Murray isn't thefastest player, but his court positioning and his anticipation save him extrasteps. He isn't the most powerful ball striker, but his accuracy creates theillusion that his shots have extra pop. "He likes to confuse andconquer," says Roddick, who has lost to Murray four of the six timesthey've met. "He doesn't have that huge weapon, but he's such a smartplayer, it's like he turns your thinking backward."

Court savvy is inMurray's blood. His mother, Judy, was a tactically shrewd Scottish tennischampion who ran Scotland's junior program, shuttling kids--including Andy andhis older brother, Jamie, now an ATP doubles specialist--to tournaments in hervan. She often tells the story of taking Andy to the European Junior BadmintonChampionships. He was 10 and was passionate about sports, so Judy was surprisedto see him looking bored. "It's so obvious who's going to win," hesaid. "The one guy just plays everything high to the backhand corner, andyou can get him every time just dropping it short to the other corner."

Murray likes thejousting back-and-forth of conversation, but the drawbridge goes up when he isasked about the elementary-school massacre in his hometown of Dunblane in 1996.A gunman stormed into classrooms, murdering 16 students and a teacher beforekilling himself. Andy, then eight, took refuge in the headmaster's study. Thetopic is strictly don't-go-there territory. "It was a policy decision madelong ago," says Eleanor Preston, who cowrote the biography Andy Murray: TheStory So Far. "I think he just feels that it's distasteful to talk aboutit."

It's disconcertingenough for Murray to have an entire country deconstruct everything from hisparents' breakup (when he was nine) to his love life to his hairstyle. "Thethings that have been written about me and my family," he says, "[are]not something to laugh at." Still, he declares himself fit to handle thescrutiny that awaits him at Wimbledon.

"It's not abig deal," he says. "You have more pressure, but you have more support,too." Still, he repeatedly strokes the little laurel wreath embroidered onhis sweatshirt. Whose logo is it? Fred Perry's.

MORE Advantage, SI Exclusive Wimbledon reporting andanalysis from Jon Wertheim and S.L. Price.

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"He's 20, but he's really MUCH MORE MATURE thanthat," Gilbert says of Murray. "Other athletes are 20 going on14."
PHOTOPhotograph by Elsa/Getty Imagescourt jouster With Gilbert (opposite, right) by his side, Murray made the semifinals of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami in March.PHOTOPAUL CHILDS/ACTION IMAGES/REUTERS[See Caption Above.]PHOTOJULIAN FINNEY/GETTY IMAGES UP ANDDOWN
Murray exulted after a Davis Cup victory in April but agonized when he injuredhis wrist in May.
PHOTOCHRISTIAN CHARISIUS/REUTERS[See Caption Above.]