Wimbledon 2009: Can Middle England learn to love Andy Murray?

Sports psychology commentary – Sunday Telepgraph – June 21, 2009 – William langley – Andy Murray is the brightest Wimbledon hopeful Britain has produced for decades. Even if he triumphs, winning over the public will be trickier.

Ever since he emerged, slab-chopped and scowling, beneath a jungle of greasy curls, Andy Murray, the nation’s brightest tennis star, has been frightening opponents – but also a substantial segment of the British public and the advertisers who ought to be making him rich.

Around Glasgow-born Andy hung an air of alienation and charmlessness, which suggested that he could never take over from Tim Henman as the once-a-year darling of Middle Britain. Even Tim stopped being nice when the subject of 22-year-old Andy came up. “He’s a miserable git,” sniffed the former British number one. (He later insisted he was joking and that the two are friends.)

The refashioning of Andy’s image was never going to be easy, but last week offered an intriguing glimpse of how the project is being handled. Groomed, buffed and with his zits airbrushed out, the player was introduced as the new ”face” of Fred Perry sportswear.

The venerable company’s marketing director, Richard Martin, claimed that Andy had “worked closely with the design team” to create a classic new range of tennis kit launched in homage to Fred – Britain’s last Wimbledon men’s champion – who was born 100 years ago last month.

Although the extent of Andy’s design contribution remained uncertain, marketing experts were broadly impressed. “Fred Perry is one of the few English brands to support Murray,” says Geoff Woad of Brand Republic, “but it is a good fit for the company.”

The tailored shorts and smart, Gatsby-esque cable knits were a big improvement on Andy’s earlier grungy look, but the deal raised the question of whether, by invoking a direct comparison with Fred, the all-English hero of the 1930s, it was placing unrealisable expectations on a man of a strikingly different nature.

The raffish, cosmopolitan Perry, who dated Marlene Dietrich before marrying American movie star Helen Vinson, was a Renaissance man – knowledgeable, refined and at ease in almost any company.

Murray, as someone who knows – and admires – him, put it last week, “is not a deeply cultured individual. He doesn’t read books, doesn’t have any other interests. He just plays tennis, and that’s all that matters to him.”

So what? Britain has been yearning for a home-grown Wimbledon men’s champion since Perry’s last win in 1936 against a sinister German, Baron Gottfried von Cramm. Far from worrying about how often he smiles and which brand of kit he wears, some experts fear the campaign to soften his image may actually damage his game.

“I like Andy just the way he is,” says Dr John Murray, a former US tennis professional, now .one of the world’s foremost sports psychologists.

“He’s quiet, he’s low-key, but he’s basically a nice guy. He has good people around him. The public doesn’t always see him this way, and it’s maybe understandable that he wants to have a different image, but what you don’t try to change is the character.

“You work within the character. Ultimately, you’ve got to be yourself, and to realise that the greatest endorsement of being yourself is winning.”

Murray’s ascent to the big time, four years ago, appeared to catch tennis unawares. Here was a boy with none of the obvious polish or reassuring wholesomeness of previous British standard-bearers such as Roger Taylor, John Lloyd or Henman.

These were chaps the establishment felt comfortable with; who, even if they didn’t win much, at least held the line against the brattishness and narcissism eating at the game’s heart.

The Scotsman had the talent, but he appeared to be wreathed in Caledonian gloom, and when – jokingly, he now claims – he made disparaging remarks about the English, much of his potential fan base switched off.

Murray appeared bewildered by the hostility. He’d had a sheltered, but not comfortable upbringing – a child of divorced parents, whose primary schooling had been disrupted by the 1996 Dunblane massacre. He’d noticed the nice guys losing, and formed his own conclusions.

“How often have you seen me smash my racket on court?” he asked. “I know I say things I probably shouldn’t say, but I’m not stumbling out of nightclubs or throwing up in front of the paparazzi.”

Last year he hired Stuart Higgins, a former Fleet Street editor, whose public relations company offers “crisis management support” for public figures.

One of the player’s close associates says: “It was a case of Andy, himself, realising that he couldn’t carry on as this kind of Harry Enfield’s Kevin character and that there was a real value to looking right and having the crowd on his side.

“He’s listened to people, understood his problem, and become more confident and mature. He’s still prickly with the media, because he’s been stung, but I’ve seen him away from the court, working with kids, out with his family, and he’s really OK.”

The stakes are high. According to the American magazine Sports Illustrated, Roger Federer, the world’s most successful player, earned an estimated $35 million last year – more than two-thirds from commercial deals with companies such as Rolex, Gillette and Nike.

Even Maria Sharapova, who hasn’t won a major title since Wimbledon in 2004, pocketed $21 million. Federer has charm and Sharapova glamour – high among the qualities advertisers cherish. The Scotsman, to put it bluntly, has struggled to display either.

Not that he’s scratching around for the price of a pack of oatcakes. Last week Murray bought a £5 million, mock-Regency house in Surrey with a swimming pool, where he is expected to live with his 21-year-old girlfriend, Kim Sears. Even so, for a world number three, his off-court earnings are believed to be relatively modest, with the bombed-out Royal Bank of Scotland and Highland Spring as his main sponsors.

“Everyone who uses sport stars for commercial endorsements is looking for the Beckham factor,” says an industry source. “That’s the gold standard, but it’s very tough to fulfil, and not something you can easily define other than as a special kind of appeal that reaches across age, class, gender, language, frontiers, everything.”

An early blunder was declaring, during the 2006 World Cup, that he supported “anyone but England”, prompting some English tennis fans to declare that they would support “anyone but Murray”. During last year’s Wimbledon, after dispatching Richard Gasquet in five sets amid much fist-pumping, Andy flaunted and caressed his muscles in what some felt was an unseemly show of vanity.

The “auld enemy” syndrome of Anglo-Scottish rivalry continues to pursue him, and many advertisers remain sceptical of his selling power south of the border. Henman, in pluckily upholding the great British tradition of heroic failure, hit a much surer chord with the shire and suburban types who follow Wimbledon, and was commercially more bankable.

Happily, it may not be too late for the country to learn to love him. “I think he’s a very good boy, really,” says novelist Jilly Cooper. “I love to watch him play, and I don’t understand why everyone is so nasty about him. I am sure that if he wins Wimbledon, we will forget all about him being a bit prickly, or whether he doesn’t like the English, and take him to heart.”

“Andy’s not naturally articulate, although he’s a lot better than he used to be,” believes Telegraph sportswriter Andrew Baker. “You have to realise that he just doesn’t need the crowd in the way that Henman did. He doesn’t play off a crowd, doesn’t milk it in the same way. Andy’s a lot less concerned about how people see him, and his image isn’t so important to him. Having said that, he’s got intelligent people around him who do understand what a valuable commercial property he is.”

At Wimbledon this week, we will get an idea if Andy Murray, all kitted out for the part, is now really ready to play it.

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