Today is the day that sporting superstar Andy Murray should be taking to the hallowed lawns of SW19 to begin his campaign to win back the trophy he last lifted in 2016. Following that victory (over Canadian Milos Raonic) Murray scaled extraordinary heights. A second Olympic gold medal and the year ending world number one ranking, secured with a straight sets victory over Novak Djokovic at London’s O2, led to Murray becoming the only athlete in history to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year award three times.
He was literally on top of the world. What followed was a nightmare of career-threatening injuries, an emotional loss at the Australian Open in January 2019, after which Murray appeared to accept his playing days were over and a last high stakes gamble to have hip surgery, if only to improve the quality of his life once his career had ended.
Remarkably Murray was back on court six months later. After lifting the doubles trophy at Queen’s Club with his good mate Feliciano López and a show-stopping run in the mixed doubles at Wimbledon with American superstar Serena Williams, Murray finally returned to the winner’s circle at the end of last year, picking up his first singles trophy in over two years, and adding to his career prize fund of more than $60m. In his victory speech Murray joked that he needed to “get back on tour to stop his family from growing too large”! Since then he has, like the rest of us, been locked down, in his case with gorgeous wife Kim. So I begin by asking if he has any more happy news to share.
“No, not just now. We’re busy enough! We have three kids under four and a half. It’s been pretty hectic for the last few months.”
Throughout Pride month the Women’s Tennis Association has celebrated with a number of interviews and articles across its digital platforms. The FA’s website carries (an admittedly short) feature on LGBT+ trailblazers and the Rugby Union’s official website is a virtual parade of rainbow flags. There is no mention of Pride from the governing body of men’s tennis. To what does Murray attribute this deafening silence? Is it due to a lack of interest, a lack of awareness or worse, embarrassment?
“I don’t know exactly why that would be the case. I think, certainly in men’s tennis, there have been a number of players who have come out as gay, but not while they’re competing. I think there’s still a stigma around it which obviously shouldn’t be the case. But it’s a fair point you bring up. I wasn’t aware of it but they should definitely be doing a better job of celebrating Pride. And I will look into it.” I believe he will. “It feels like we’re trying to talk about it more but we’re far from where we should be.”
A number of female tennis champions from Billie-Jean King to Martina Navratilova have come out at various stages of their own careers but Murray’s former coach, and former women’s world Number One Amélie Mauresmo came out at the start of her career. I ask Murray if she ever spoke to him about her own experiences.
“I never spoke to her at any length about it. She never really wanted it to be a big deal and that’s the point where I would like sport to be. Where it’s not a big deal every time someone comes out or speaks about it. I know it was difficult for her in the early stages of her career. While you get people who are supportive you also get negative headlines and comments from people that you can really do without.”
Has Murray himself ever heard homophobic comments or witnessed homophobic incidents in the locker room?
“I wouldn’t say that I have heard it in the locker room. If more gay men came out it’s something you might see more of potentially. There have been a few things said in articles I’ve read where players have made homophobic comments, but I’ve not been in the presence of anyone when they have made homophobic comments in the locker room.”
Is there anything that coaches like Murray’s own mother Judy can do to break down barriers and ensure that everyone who wants to play tennis, whether on Centre Court or in their local park feels comfortable?
“I think as a sport you just have to be as inclusive as possible, and have more diverse people on boards and committees. We need to create a culture where everyone’s voice is heard. But I do think it helps when, on the women’s tour, some of the biggest names ever to have played are gay, it becomes acceptable, not something that anyone feels they have to shy away or hide from. I think in men’s sport it’s been a much slower process than it has been on the women’s side.”
Talking of women in sport, did Andy tell his mother, the only parent apart from Richard Williams to have coached not one, but two children to a world Number One tennis ranking, that he was planning to do this interview today?
“No,” he laughs. “I’ve not spoken to her for a few days. She’s running a kids’ tournament up in Scotland at the moment.”
Murray is a partner in his own management company, 77 Sports Management, named after the number of years it took for another British man to win Wimbledon following Fred Perry’s final victory in 1936. He also acts as a mentor to a number of young British athletes. If one of them sought his advice about coming out as a professional athlete what would that advice be?
“I’d be absolutely supportive of that. I think it would be a really positive thing. Ultimately you want to get to the point where [coming out] is not a thing. I try to relate any advice I give to what I would tell my own children and I hate to think that anyone would hide who they are or think they couldn’t be who they were for fear of getting abused. I would be absolutely supportive if any of the athletes we work with wanted to come out.”
In collaboration with clothing manufacturer Castore, Murray has used his downtime to launch a sexy new range of sportswear, but I can’t imagine him bent over a sewing machine late at night like Venus Williams. How much input did he actually have in the design process?
“Well, I’m not Mr Fashion. I don’t know loads about it, but I like my clothes to be well fitted. So in terms of designs I made sure [with Castore] that that’s taken care of. There are certain colours I like and don’t like but in terms of the actual fashion side of it, I don’t know too much about it.
“I’m at a stage in my life now, where I’m coming to the end of my career and starting to think about what I might like to do when I’ve finished playing. This is something I’m interested in doing. Castore were interested in my post-playing career, and that was appealing to me.”
Just before talking to Andy I had heard his mum on the radio, describing what she would and wouldn’t miss about Wimbledon. I put the same question to him.
“Playing at Wimbledon is very stressful. But I enjoy that. It means that you care about the work you do. I won’t miss the attention off the court, the headlines, the TV. But playing in front of big crowds, I’ve really missed that for the last couple of years, what with the injuries and stuff.”
So just how close was Murray to jacking it all in? Deciding that it simply wasn’t worth it anymore?
“Pretty close. I’d been in pain for a long time. I told my team a couple of times I wanted to stop. I was getting no enjoyment from it anymore. Yeah, I was very close.”
What’s the best thing about being Andy Murray? He sounds flummoxed, and clearly finds talking about his game easier than talking about the man who makes it happen.
“I’ve no idea really. The recognition I’ve got for my career, my achievements.”
Which achievement gave him the most pleasure?
“On the court it’s difficult to pick between an Olympic gold medal and Wimbledon. Off the court I loved carrying the flag at the Olympic Games [London 2012]. That’s something I never expected to be able to do. It was a real honour. I was very proud.”
In addition to his new clothing line Murray is also the owner of a posh hotel (the Cromlix) near his home town of Dunblane. The hotel was recently the venue for a “non-gender specific” wedding that made headlines in the Scottish press. Has Murray himself ever attended any fabulous gay weddings?
“I’ve not been to a gay wedding yet. But both myself and my brother Jamie were married at my hotel. It’s hosted many family celebrations.”
I confess I’m a little disappointed that Murray hasn’t used the Lockdown to grow back the hairstyle he sported in the noughties. Has someone been cutting it for him?
“I wanted to grow it back. But since I began losing my hair it doesn’t look the same. If I could go back to a cut or hairstyle it would be to when my hair was BIG!”
Talking about unruly body parts, following surgery to resurface his hip back in January 2019 Murray shared an X-ray from his hospital bed on Instagram. Was he aware at the time that the image appeared to show rather more than just his hip?
“Well, I obviously realised quite quickly afterwards that it did. I think it was the following morning [after the operation] and I was pretty out of it at the time. I was taking all kinds of medication, morphine and everything and I was obviously not thinking straight or checking too carefully. I’ve never made a mistake like that before. But if people found it funny then it’s OK. I think the lesson to be learned is that if you’ve just come through a major operation, and been given morphine, then you should stay off social media for a while!”
I’ve been putting off mentioning one of tennis’s great unmentionables, but it would be remiss in the context of this interview not to bring her up. Margaret Court, the winner of a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles (although only 11 were won during the open era) has long been a thorn in the side of tennis for her frequently expressed and deeply homophobic bigotry. No less a figure than John McEnroe last year described Court, now a television evangelist in charge of her own church, as tennis’ “crazy aunt” before willing Serena Williams to eclipse her records and consign Court and her views to history. “There’s only one thing longer than the list of Margaret Court’s tennis achievements,” said McEnroe. “It’s her list of offensive and homophobic statements.”
Past champions of the Australian Open, Billie-Jean King and Martina Navratilova have called for the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne to be renamed in favour of indigenous Australian champion Evonne Goolagong, and British player Laura Robson sported rainbow coloured wristbands and nails while playing on it. Where does Andy Murray stand?
“God, that’s a difficult question,” he says, before likening the issue to the on-going debate over historically inappropriate statues.
“Court was given a ceremony at the Australian Open this year to mark her achievements in the game, but the reception she received from the public was lukewarm. She has obviously offended and upset a lot of people over the years. I think the players certainly have spoken up, which is a positive thing. As far as renaming the venue. I think that yes, it’s something the sport should consider. I don’t know who makes the final decision on that but I don’t think her values are what tennis stands for. When you get to the Australian Open you want to concentrate on the tennis. Court’s views detract from that.”
Not only has Murray been excellent company, he has come across as one of the most considered, and considerate interviewees I’ve ever had the privilege and pleasure of talking to.
Regardless of how well he performs for what’s left of his playing career – win or lose – I suspect Murray’s greatest achievements may yet be still to come.
But before I let him go there’s still one burning question that needs answering.
Murray once admitted that his “gay tennis crush” would be on his good mate and erstwhile doubles partner Feliciano López. (once dubbed Deliciano by his mother, it’s easy to see why) but what all gay tennis fans want to know, of course, is which one of his “Big Three” opponents does he most fancy.
So I ask him to rank Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in order of Snog, Marry and Avoid.
Murray throws his head back and emits a real belly laugh.
“Oh God! I’m not going to give you an avoid!” (He is nothing if not diplomatic.)
“Can I have an alternative to avoid?” he pleads, “or I’ll get crucified by whoever I pick!”
Eventually he comes up with his answer.
“I would marry Roger… and then I would have to snog the other two. I know it’s a cop-out but I’m not avoiding anyone!”
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