Andy Murray aced the media and became a global role model – but here’s why tennis players sometimes seem a little grumpy

EPA-EFE/Kerim Okten

Andy Murray aced the media and became a global role model – but here’s why tennis players sometimes seem a little grumpy

Andy Murray’s impending retirement from tennis is devastating for so many people. From the young players who want to be him, to the spectators who love to watch him, to those for whom his steadfast support for issues such as equal prize money for female players is a reason to admire him, Murray stepping away from the professional game will be a monumental loss. But tennis fans – not least in England – haven’t always felt this way about him.

In 2011, an article in the Daily Telegraph described the Scot’s default manner on court as “a stomping grumpiness”. “His tennis raises the heart, but his manners sink the spirits”, ran the argument. Of course, his assertion in 2006 that he would be supporting “anyone but England” in the football World Cup hadn’t won him any hearts and minds south of the Scottish border, but Murray himself admits that early in his career his perceived grumpiness might have been down to him being quite defensive around the media.

But by the summer of 2013, after he had added a Wimbledon championship to his gold medal in the 2012 London olympics, headlines about the Scot had changed: “It’s official, Andy Murray is a national treasure” is just one sample from 2015.

Murray is not the first tennis player to be first labelled “moody”, only to become a huge crowd favourite – tennis greats John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors experienced similar transitions from petulant youths to crowd favourites over the years.

It’s a tennis thing

The individual nature of tennis means that the match court can feel like an incredibly lonely place, particularly if you’re losing. As a former player myself, I [Anna Fitzpatrick] understand only too well just how frustrating it is to put your blood, sweat and tears into a game, only to be “robbed” on a crucial point by a incorrect line call from the umpire. Similarly, I’ve battled countless times for more than three hours, often in 35+ degree heat, digging deep, trying every tactic I can think of to attempt to outsmart my opponent, looking desperately at my coach for an inspirational idea of how to turn the match around. Then, the realisation dawns on you that nobody can help, you’re entirely alone out there. You use “self-talk” for motivation, to pick yourself up, and remind yourself of your key points of focus.

You know you should be telling yourself that you can do it, to keep trying because you will get an opportunity to regain momentum. But instead, negative self talk can creep in: “Nothing is working, I can’t turn this around, I’m not good enough today, I don’t know what else to try.”

It’s easy to see how, to the watching fan, a player constantly muttering to themselves might come across as a little moody, when in fact, it often serves an important function for performance. In a sport where any single point could be the crucial one that swings momentum from one player to the other, arguing with umpires and lines judges might also seem like petulance to some, but can actually just be a reflection of players fighting tooth and nail for every point to maintain or win back momentum. And Murray is by no means the only player to have argued the point with the umpire, nor the most aggressive by any means.

Andy Murray announces that he will retire in 2019. EPA-EFE/Daniel Pockett

Tennis players depend on winning to get paid, so when they compete they are fighting not just for world ranking points and trophies, but for their livelihoods – and they must do it with the eyes of the world upon them, with crowds cheering their opponent and even applauding when they make a mistake. You can forgive a player for appearing a little tetchy at times.

Turning point

In July 2012, immediately after losing the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer, Murray was asked to explain what happened in the match. He responded, lip quivering and voice breaking: “I’ll try, but it won’t be easy” – before congratulating his victorious opponent in a show of sportsmanship that drew applause from all sides. Perhaps that was the moment the tide began to turn.

Just three weeks before claiming his 2012 Olympic Gold medal, Murray was described by the Huffington Post as a “dour-faced Scot, living up to his peevish reputation, giving mono-syllabic responses to reporters and throwing his toys out the pram at the slightest hint of criticism”.

But, the London Olympics it seems, had a surprise in store for us, providing a wonderful opportunity for tennis and non-tennis fans to see the grit, determination and fierce passion of Murray. He left little doubt in anyone’s mind just how much it mean for him to compete – and win – for his country. With equally impressive efforts to claim the following year’s US Open and Wimbledon titles, by the time he led Great Britain to Davis Cup success in 2015, Murray had become a true British sporting legend.

Playing the media game

In terms of how he was portrayed in the media, it takes two to tango. If, early in his career, Murray appeared unwilling to open up to the media, it has to be said that the media weren’t particularly kind to him.

Research suggests that for young athletes striving for success, the relationship with the media – constant attention, critical comments and the rest – can be a significant source of stress. So it’s unsurprising that athletes who are suddenly thrust into the limelight after experiencing success, might occasionally come across as a bit grumpy or rude, especially after losing an important match.

In fairness, it’s hard to blame someone like Murray for feeling that mandatory media commitments are irritating distractions that steal their valuable time and prevent them from working towards their goal.

But as Murray’s career progressed, we have observed his relationship with the media develop. Rather than being portrayed as an abrasive brat, in the last few years, he has been praised for his dedication. Rather than being cast as abrasive and sarcastic, he’s won fans with what’s now seen as a dry wit.

There is evidence to suggest that as athletes progress through their careers they develop better strategies for coping with adversity – especially if they receive training, (such as that provided by Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association), as so many sportspeople do these days. His effective and humorous use of social media has further strengthened his brand – he recently offered an Instagram follower a free ticket to his Australian Open match to apologise for his poor performance in a practice match with Novak Djokovic.

Local hero

In recent years Murray appears to have embraced – and learned to capitalise on – his relationship with the media. He has used his sporting status to speak out on several social issues, including equality and “casual sexism”, often correcting inaccurate comments during press conferences and online.

He has been bold and direct when expressing his support for equal prize money for women. The way he eloquently approached, and ultimately dismissed, criticism of his employing a female coach was refreshing and inspiring for many. Upon hearing that Murray would be coached by former women’s world no.1, Amelie Mauresmo, another former female player pointed out that “nobody else was letting women in”.

The way he has led debate on these important issues has enabled him to show us Andy Murray, the incredibly well-rounded person – rather than just Andy Murray, the super-competitive athlete. His awareness of wider issues and his willingness to actively support them has been endearing and empowering. Accordingly, he has been hailed as “the unexpected champion of women’s sport” and a fantastic role model for people in all walks of life.

Tennis will be poorer without him – indeed it is all the richer for his brilliant career.