Novak Djokovic is through to the next round. Roger Federer cruises on, surrendering only 11 games in two matches. Rafa Nadal faces back-to-back matches thanks to rain delays. It is day four of the French Open and, in Paris, the tennis world is abuzz with its snakes-and-ladders business of grand slam progression, upset, ranking points, prize money and glory.
Where is Andy Murray?
The world number two – far removed from his rivals’ locker-room banter – is walking a pair of border terriers on Ockham Common in Surrey.
Having withdrawn from the French Open due to a back injury – dashing his ambition of making a fourth consecutive grand slam final – the 26-year-old Scot cuts an incongruous figure in a padded jacket, jeans and wellies, an ordinary young man spending time with girlfriend Kim Sears and their dogs, Maggie May and Rusty. In tune with the dynamic of a Murray five-set nail-biter, one minute it’s a relaxed stroll along the path, and the next he’s disappearing at speed into the heather – dodging sleepy adders and ground-nesting birds – pursuing a runaway dog.
“I love walking the dogs,” he says, once we are back in his Regency-style home-cum-fitness HQ in Oxshott, sitting in a super-tidy dining room dominated by a huge portrait of a beseeching terrier’s face. (Kim is an animal artist with her own business, Brushes and Paws.)
“I grew up around my grandparents’ retrievers and labradors,” he continues. “My parents both worked, so after school my brother and I would go round to Gran and Granpa’s house and they always had two dogs, a boy and a girl. It’s great that Kim and I are able to have two of them, too. Kim takes them out in the morning and when I’m back from training we go out again.”
The dogs are a symbol of downtime, of a happy domestic life, and also a safe outlet through which this private, unassuming couple can project personality on their own terms. Maggie May has a twitter account [@maggiemay_hem] on which she exchanges tweets with Djokovic’s poodle, Pierre, and posts pictures such as the snap of her sitting atop the postbox in Dunblane that was painted gold in honour of Murray’s Olympic success. She once slyly expressed competitive dismay at how much attention the Duchess of Cambridge’s spaniel receives.
In private, it is clear Murray is a warm-hearted individual with a great sense of humour. As the nation came to realise in those two bouts of affecting tears on Centre Court last summer – the emotional outpouring after losing to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final and the tears of joy and relief, only weeks later, when he beat the Swiss player for Olympic glory – Murray is not so much aloof and surly as extremely focused, driven and hugely mindful of the emotions of all those who support his hunger for success.
Relaxation, beyond an athlete’s normal “rest and recovery” programme, barely features in his schedule. “When I’m travelling, I play fantasy sports because I spend so much time in hotel rooms,” he says. “And I’ll watch any sport on the TV. Before I hurt my back, I’d occasionally enjoy go-karting, or play golf and football. On flights, I go through box sets. Sherlock – that’s the best series I’ve seen for a while. Benedict Cumberbatch is SO good.
I tried the US version, Elementary, but it’s just not the same. For me, Sherlock Holmes is Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s unbelievable…”
Back in his world of training drills and ice baths, what seems most unbelievable to Murray is that the positive momentum that began with the Olympic gold medal, continued with his first grand slam title at the US Open, and took him to another final against Djokovic at the Australian Open, has been stalled by injury. As he concedes, expectation has never been higher. He will tread the grass of SW19 not just as the British number one, but as the world number two, Olympic and US Open champion. Surely this could be the year that Murray becomes the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936?
The back injury is a recurring niggle, exacerbated by the different demands made by clay-court play. Might there even be an advantage in missing the French Open if he arrives at Wimbledon without carrying that niggle?
“Missing the French Open was really hard. I haven’t missed a slam for six years. All my training goes into being ready for the slams, but you have to try to find a positive,” he says, sounding disconsolate. “I’ll be short of match practice, but hopefully I’ll have had more time on the grass courts and have a bit of a headstart…”
The hiatus has made him even more determined in his rehabilitation work. He’s added Pilates to his routine, working on machines such as the Reformer and Cadillac, which use springs as resistance. “I work in a small class. I’ve done big-group classes, Bikram yoga and so on, but I find Pilates helps me the most because the work can be tailored day by day.”
The body is one thing, the mind another. In the psychological warfare that is top tennis, negativity is the enemy. Those who have known Murray for years note how he has become much happier in his skin. Some credit the taciturn presence of coach Ivan Lendl. Some put it down to the maturing of a young man who burst onto the scene as a scruffy teenager when he won the US Junior Open in 2004 at the age of 17.
He has certainly always done things the hard way, but, in terms of the “monkeys on the back” that sports psychologists talk about, Murray has rid himself of two: first, by returning to Centre Court so soon after his Wimbledon final defeat and emerging the Olympic champion, and second, by joining the elite club of grand slam winners after beating Djokovic at New York’s Flushing Meadow. After losing four previous grand slam finals, Murray proved in 2012 that he is capable of performing when it matters.
“I was struggling after I’d lost at Wimbledon. It was one of the toughest matches for me to lose,” he says. Immediately after the trophy ceremony, he spoke with Lendl in the locker room. “Not about the match, more about the way I’d handled the situation and the pressure. He was really happy with how I’d dealt with all of that.”
Murray has never sat down to analyse a replay of the match. “I haven’t watched any of it. It would be a tough one for me,” he admits, though he hasn’t been able to avoid images of the championship point saved, then another lost to deny him his dream – “because, at tournaments throughout the year, they show replays of who won the last slams…”
Some players like watching their matches, some don’t, he explains. It sounds as if he’s in the latter camp. “The guys I work with watch a lot of my matches and see the things I need to work on. I played seven matches at Wimbledon, not just the final, so there will have been certain things I did well throughout the whole event and there will be other things I didn’t do so well. We go through feedback about the tournament, or even the grass-court season as a whole, as soon as we get back on the practice courts.”
The night before Murray stepped back onto a practice court after Wimbledon 2012 he dreamt he was holding the men’s singles trophy above his head in victory. “Three or four days afterwards, I woke up thinking I’d won Wimbledon. When I realised I hadn’t, that set me back again, but once I was back on the practice court I started to feel better. Something had changed. Those two weeks before the Olympics were the best I’ve ever played in practice. That was the first time that I responded really well after a painful loss.”
Looking ahead to the fortnight of strawberries and cream, he says, “There’s a lot riding on Wimbledon, but I’m better equipped to deal with the pressures and understand how
I need to play matches when I get to the latter stages of the big events. The US Open win has eased pressure on myself, definitely, because winning a grand slam was the aim behind every practice session I have ever put myself through.”
Wimbledon for Murray is Groundhog Day. Every year he finds himself repeating the same answer again and again to the same question: could this be your year? “I deal with it as best
I can, knowing that I’ve played some of my best tennis at Wimbledon over the course of my career,” he says. “It’s the build-up that’s difficult. People follow me everywhere and there are more strains on my time. Once the tournament starts, it’s great. I try to manage my energy well and fit in the extra commitments around training, practice and rest.
“I love playing in front of the home crowd. I want to draw upon the incredible atmosphere I experienced at the Olympics. That bubble of a positive atmosphere brought out the best in athletes. And of course it’s nice to come home every night and sleep in my own bed, and have friends and family around.”
One uncertainty is whether or not his loyal and chatty grandparents will be there to cheer him on. When I tell him I have enjoyed the occasional cup of tea with his grandmother, Shirley, up in the Competitors’ Facilities terrace, he rather sweetly explains that that may not happen this year because she’s recovering from a broken hip. “She was doing the bed and tripped on the electric blanket,” he explains. “I called her before she went into surgery and asked, why in this day and age, she was still using an electric blanket and she said, ‘It’s not me, it’s your grandfather!’”
Queen’s Club is the first test for Murray, and on to Wimbledon. Given Murray’s membership of the tennis elite’s Fab Four, his anticipation suggests quiet confidence. “When the grand slams come round, people like to put question marks next to the top people. He’s struggled here, his form has dipped there, but by the end of the French Open I bet you’ll see Rafa and Novak in the semi-finals [he was right]. You expect the top players to play well at the slams.”
To that the nation’s chorus is: “We do, Andy, we do” – confident he’ll be doing his damnedest to achieve the ultimate dream.