In his Wimbledon whites, Andy Murray has single-handedly redrawn Britain’s sporting landscape. His adventures on a rectangle of grass in south-west London have done as much to influence a generation as anything achieved by such giants of the British sporting pantheon as Bobby Moore or Jackie Stewart or Ian Botham. And they resonate far beyond the wrought-iron gates of the All England Club.
With his victory in 2013, Murray stopped British tennis from being an international joke. And if his heroics on Centre Court since have shifted how the British public views Wimbledon, it has also utterly transformed one part of Britain.
“Dunblane isn’t a tennis area,” says Roy Erskine, who has lived in the small cathedral city at the entrance to the Scottish Highlands for more than half a century. “Most people in Dunblane probably don’t know much about tennis.” And that matters not one bit. For the people of Dunblane, Murray’s tennis triumphs have been so much more than drop shots, break points and first-serve percentages.
To appreciate the impact that Murray’s triumphs have had – and are still having – on Dunblane, you can start by sitting on the commemorative wooden bench, or by speaking to the locals clustered around the artificial grass courts. But really you need to have a conversation with Roy and his wife Shirley. Because Mr and Mrs Erskine know Dunblane’s most famous son better than most. They are his grandparents.
As Judy Murray’s mother and father, they can tell you how their grandson’s victory trans- formed how Dunblane feels about itself. Naturally, Murray’s accomplishments have brought great joy to his grandparents, who are both in their 80s. And the greatest joy of all for the Erskines has been seeing how their grand- son’s tennis has helped Dunblane after the massacre at the primary school.
It is 20 years now since Thomas Hamilton murdered 16 schoolchildren and a teacher in the school gymnasium and then turned one of his revolvers on himself. Murray, then aged eight, had been waiting with his class to use the gym. Murray’s brother Jamie, who was ten, was also in the school at the time of the shootings.
Hamilton wasn’t a stranger to the Murray boys; Judy had occasionally given him a lift in the family car. For so long, this was a city defined by that horrific day in March 1996. Murray, though, has changed that. Mention Dunblane now and the first name you associate with the city is someone with ambitions of winning a second title at the All England Club this summer.
“A lot of local people have said to me that for years when they met new people, they would never say they were from Dunblane,” Shirley discloses. “They’d say Perth or Stirling. They didn’t want to say Dunblane as then the person you were talking to would gasp and say, ‘Isn’t that where..?’ Now local people are happy to say Dunblane as you get the reaction: ‘Oh, isn’t that where Andy Murray is from?’ That has given us more pleasure than anything else Andy has accomplished, that he has put Dunblane on the map for the right reasons.”
Roy agrees: “I’ve been very aware of the difference that the boys have made to Dunblane.
When you talk about Dunblane now, it’s Andy and Jamie who are the focal point of what’s going on in Dunblane. The tragedy, because of the anniversaries, keeps coming back. You’ ll never get rid of that, and properly you’ll never get rid of that, but the emphasis now is definitely more on the boys.”
We are sitting in armchairs in the billiards room of Cromlix House, Murray’s boutique hotel a few miles outside Dunblane, with stags’ heads mounted on the walls, and a plate of shortbread on the table to share. Three or four times a week, Roy comes to the hotel to walk his dog Penny Black in the grounds, and take her for a swim in the loch. This is where Roy and Shirley celebrated their silver and golden wedding anniversaries and there is already some discussion about marking their diamond anniversary here next year. Jamie married his wife Alejandra at Cromlix House, and Andy’s own wedding reception was held there last year. While Murray lives in Surrey with his wife Kim and baby daughter Sophia, and the demands of the tennis circuit are such that he doesn’t often have the opportunity to visit Dunblane, it’s plain how much he cares for the area.
Buying, and then doing up, the hotel was one indication. Another was his Facebook posting on the 20th anniversary of the shootings,
when he shared an image of the city’s
coat of arms with the message: “Always in my thoughts. Take you with me everywhere I go. Always my home.”
The first time that Roy and Shirley fully appreciated “how much Andy means to Dunblane” was in the aftermath of his victory over Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon final. Usually the Erskines would have been at the All England Club to watch the match live. But they didn’t go that summer, as Shirley had broken her leg. Staying at home meant they could enjoy “the Dunblane atmosphere” during the tournament. Nothing prepared them for the city’s reaction.
“Dunblane won’t have a bad word said about him. They are so supportive of this guy. All these people were supporting Andy. We cried that day,” says Roy. “A lot of that emotion came from the realisation that the people in Dunblane were just as proud of Andy as we were of him. That was a big day. That day opened our eyes to a lot. It told us a lot about Dunblane.”
Long gone are the days when Roy and Shirley could pop to the shops. “Now
when one of us gets the morning rolls, we
can be gone for an hour and a half. Everyone wants to stop and chat about
Andy and Jamie,” Roy says. “We’re always speaking about tennis. The only person
we don’t speak to about tennis is Andy.
When he’s back, we’ll hardly mention tennis at all. He just wants to speak about what’s happening with the family.”
The Erskines are aware that, outside Dunblane, some have taken a strong dislike to their grandson. For Roy, reading online comments can be very distressing. “Some of the comments about Andy are very nasty. The things that some people come out with, and it’s not just about Andy, but about his mum, too,” Roy says. “The people who write these comments, that’s their prerogative, but I find it upsetting.”
Judy has spoken in the past about receiving hate mail, and Shirley reveals how she and Roy have also been sent some poisonous letters. “We’ve had one or two nasty letters. One about Andy supposedly snarling on court, and another about his accent, saying he sounded American. Just comments like that, but they do upset you. Judy would say, ‘Put it in the bin, just forget it’. She would tell me that there are always going to be people like that,” she says. “Thankfully we haven’t had one of those letters for a while. We’ve also had some funny ones, such as the man saying Andy needs to eat more baked beans.”
One of Murray’s most vocal armchair critics also happens to be his grandfather. On those days when Murray isn’t performing close to his best, his grandfather will sit in front of the TV in Dunblane, “shrieking” and cursing and kicking. So some of the former Wimbledon champion’s performances can inspire two Murray monologues – one on court and the other in Scotland.
“When Andy’s not playing well, I can get very upset with him,” he says. “I prefer watching Andy’s matches on TV to being there and seeing it live, because if I’m watching live I can’t express concern, and that’s especially true of Wimbledon.
“If I’m at home I can kick the coffee table and use some language that I probably shouldn’t. The reason I get upset is that, because he’s such a good player, I feel as though he should win every point and of course he doesn’t. Shirley has largely given up trying to get me to calm down when Andy is playing. Shirley is very quiet during Andy’s matches – that’s the only time she is quiet. Meanwhile, I’m shrieking away and telling Andy what he should have done.”
Judy wasn’t the first in Murray’s family to show a passion and an aptitude for tennis; her parents “more or less met on court” and both of them competed at county level. While Roy was a decent footballer, and played for Hibernian, Stirling Albion and Cowdenbeath, the sport he loved was tennis. When the Murray brothers were young, their grandparents would sometimes hit some balls with them, though Andy would often end up frustrated: “For goodness’ sake, Grandpa, play properly and stop doing those twiddly shots.”
Roy recalls those happy times: “It was obvious early on how competitive Andy was. Both the boys, when they were very young, played in the second gents’ team for Dunblane, and it wasn’t long before Andy was telling his very senior partners how they should be playing and where they should be standing.”
Every other day, Roy says, he finds himself discussing how Dunblane “produced” two great tennis players in Andy and Jamie. “I think to myself, ‘How did that happen? How did a place like this produce two players who have gone on to achieve what they have?’ A lot of what Andy has achieved, we can’t quite believe that it’s happened. And the answer to that question of how this has been possible – I think they were lucky to have had a mother who realised very early on that there was something special there.”
Roy says he and Shirley “missed the boys growing up”. They were taken by tennis. Murray’s trips to Dunblane are still rare. When he does go back, he makes the most of it, such as with the jog down memory lane last Boxing Day when he ran from his mother’s house in nearby Bridge of Allan. On reaching Dunblane, Murray’s training turned into a tour of the most important spots: the primary school, the high school, the sports club, the cathedral where he married Kim last year.
“It was a horrible, murky day and Andy was wearing his beanie so no one recognised him,” Shirley says. “And then he got to the tennis courts and there were a couple of kids playing with their parents. Andy watched for a bit, then one of the kids must have recognised him, and Andy went on court and hit with them. That must have been a lovely moment for those kids. When I pass those courts I sometimes look at the youngsters on there and think: ‘You could do it, too – all you need is some talent, some dedication and some support along the way’.”
The simple act of posting a letter in Dunblane is to celebrate the tennis talent that emerged from the city. Why use an ordinary red postbox when there is a golden one at the end of the high street, the colour of Murray’s Olympic medal?
Alternatively, locals wanting to feel a connection with Murray can sit on his commemorative wooden bench. Or they can tee off on the 18th hole of the golf course, which was this year renamed “the Murrays’ Hame” in honour of Andy and Jamie. While there is no statue of Murray (yet), there is no mistaking the affection that Dunblane has for Britain’s greatest-ever tennis player. In truth, affection isn’t even the half of it. Call it adoration.