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Playing With Perception

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Murray© Getty ImagesAndy Murray enjoyed an impressive campaign this past autumn, winning three titles in three weeks to surpass Roger Federer in the South African Airways ATP Rankings.

Andy Murray is often put under a microscope, but remains an enigma to most. Down-to-earth, but with all the makings of a star on court, one thing is certain: There is much more to the British No. 1 than meets the eye.

Actress Helen Mirren observed recently that there are two versions of everyone. “And one of them none of us will ever know.”

On his best days, opponents might imagine there are two Andy Murrays on the other side of the net. This, the most gifted British tennis player since the Second World War, and certainly the most enigmatic, can be just as hard to fathom away from the court. When he goes to work, however, the application is intense, the suffering extreme and the satisfaction just part of a longer journey.

It is a year since Murray and Rafael Nadal collaborated here at The O2 in what many believe was the best three-set match of 2010. It lasted three hours and 12 minutes, and bristled with power and invention fit for a final. The Spaniard won, but so did the Scot, because Murray emerged from that semi-final convinced that the gap between himself and the World No. 1, as Nadal was at the time, had shrunk to manageable proportions.

“Murray sometimes looks to be suffering like Hamlet, alone and misunderstood”

So, how did his year since unfold? Buoyed and rested, Murray reached the final of the Australian Open and, after a dreadful crash on the hard courts of America, got to a losing clay semi-final against Nadal in Monte-Carlo, a clay semi-final against his Melbourne conqueror Novak Djokovic in Rome that he might have won, and a clay semi-final against Nadal at Roland Garros, beaten again by the all-time master of the red dust.

That hurt, as did losing to Nadal over four sets in each of the semi-finals of the remaining Slams. Nevertheless, that’s a final and three semis in majors in 2011. Murray returns to the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals stronger, a player willing to risk – through conviction or circumstance, it is hard to say – as much tactically as he always has done physically.

MurrayIn his US Open semi-final against Nadal, Murray won 33 points on 44 visits to the net against one of the most devastating passers in the history of the game. It might prove to be a turning point in his career. Mixing in such distinguished company on such a regular basis is encouraging evidence that Murray, at 24, is a couple of grinding games away from breaking through for his first Grand Slam title.

Yet the debate rages. The public hunger for success is insatiable and faith fragile. People doubt him, citing the rise of Djokovic as another impassable roadblock. And, from outside his goldfish bowl, Murray sometimes looks to be suffering like Hamlet, alone and misunderstood. All is not as it seems.

He has had his dark days, certainly, but they are fewer and less debilitating than they were. In fact, after nearly seven years on the ATP World Tour, Murray has matured to the point where the expectations of others matter less than the demands he imposes on himself.

There is something reassuringly grounded and normal about this Scotsman, from his support for a malaria charity in Malawi, to his obsession with Twitter and Fantasy football, and an unerring knack of creating comedy from the most unpromising material.

During Roland Garros this year, Murray set off from his rented apartment on the Champs-Elysées one evening with an adventurous twinkle, keen to try the city’s metro system on the way to meeting his mother, Judy, for dinner. He could have taken a tournament limo, or even a taxi. He didn’t – and he got lost.

“There is something reassuringly grounded and normal about this Scotsman”

“I was trying to read signs in French which were totally irrelevant to where I was going, or to what I was trying to achieve from it,” he explained afterwards. “I thought [my handling of the situation] was decent. I only went five or six stops. But I enjoyed it.”

Roland Garros was an entertaining fortnight, one way and another. Murray also broke a tooth in comic circumstances. “I was on the way back from the courts after I beat [Viktor] Troicki. I just bit into a baguette and it kind of snapped. I felt it, but it was still in position and when I got back I looked in the mirror, fiddled around and pulled it out. I had a good old look down the gum and there was a nice big hole.”

There is a memory from that tournament that lives more sharply than the Mr Bean moments, though. Murray was walking away from an outside practice court, surrounded by journalists keen to know if he was fit enough to continue in the tournament, as well as a horde of young admirers clamouring for his autograph.

MurrayMurray had much on his mind, as the ankle he rolled during his match the day before was still bothering him and there was speculation he might be heading home. He avoided questions about his injury but, as he headed for the locker room, he signed as many autograph books and slips of paper that were thrust his way, an obligation that never seems to weigh him down.

After walking 30 yards or so – on an ankle stripped of pain-killers to test its strength – Murray realised he still had the pen offered up by one young fan. He stopped, looked around over the throng to give it back and was as perplexed as a startled partridge when he could not see the owner. Turning to his friend and hitting partner, he handed over the pen that might have been worth a couple of Euros and said: “If he comes back for it, can you make sure he gets it?”

Andy has probably forgotten the pen and the incident, but it is hard to think of another sporting celebrity who would have bothered to do that. Yet it is such acts of seemingly inconsequential consideration for others that shine a revealing light on the millionaire Scot. Whatever the comforts of his life in stockbroker-belt Surrey, and the other trappings of his lifestyle, he seems to have kept his feet firmly on the ground.

This story also appears in the official Barclays ATP World Tour Finals tournament programme, which can be purchased here: http://www.pplsport.com/ATP/.

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