FORMER SCOTTISH NATIONAL Coach and British Fed Cup Captain, Judy Murray OBE, came to York as part of the York Festival of Ideas and Nouse Sport’s Adam Philpott took the opportunity to sit down with her and discuss her inspirational life story ahead of Andy Murray’s competitive return to tennis on Tuesday.
Reading your autobiography, it is clear that you grew up in a household culture of tennis and subsequently caught tennis fever yourself. How similar was your childhood environment to the one Jamie and Andy grew up in?
My mum and dad both played tennis at county level and they were very involved members at Dunblane Tennis Club, which was just a short walk from where we lived. In those days, Wimbledon was probably the only tennis event that was televised. My mum was a huge fan and literally sat in front of the sofa for two weeks. We were always pointed in the direction of the fridge if we wanted something to eat.
My two younger brothers and I were encouraged to try all sports when we were young. That’s what I did with my kids. I wanted them to enjoy sport as much as I had, and tennis was just one of them. I’m very glad that they had that kind of upbringing. As a result, they developed very good hand-eye and foot-eye coordination and those are the skills that underpin all sports. I guess it was just doing with them what my mum and dad had done with me.
It wasn’t all about tennis for Jamie and Andy, of course. Both had interests and talent in other sports; for Jamie it was golf, and for Andy it was football…
It was never just about tennis; tennis was one of many things we did as a family. Andy was very good at football and eventually had to make a decision between tennis and football when he was about 14. He got asked to do two things at the same time; one was to go to Italy for a tennis tournament, and the other was to go and do a 6-week camp with Rangers FC. That was really when he started to let tennis take precedence over football. Jamie enjoyed golf; he had a 3-handicap of golf when he was 15. He’s multi-talented as well.
Was there a particular moment in which you realised that tennis could be much more than just a hobby for both Jamie and Andy? Did you ever think when playing with your sons on soggy Dunblane courts with tumble-dried tennis balls that they would go on to each win multiple Grand Slam titles?
I get asked that a lot. I think there’s a huge difference between being a talented child who is good at their hobby. When it’s a hobby you can take it or leave it, when it’s a career and you have to do it day in, day out you really need to be 16, 17, 18 before you have any idea if you want to do it. You need to be mature enough to make that decision. Not everybody can handle the life and business of being a professional athlete and that’s the difference between it being a hobby and it being a career. You need to be mature enough to handle that. It’s one thing being talented as a kid, it’s quite another thing being a talented pro athlete. I think probably at 16, 17 they both were at a stage where they realised that tennis was what they wanted to try to do.
The chances of making a living out of being a professional tennis player are absolutely tiny. You have to be inside the top 100 to make a living because you’re responsible for all of your expenses, and the circuit is overseas most of the year. The costs are enormous and there’s no prize money in juniors so you’re paying out all of the time. You’re probably going to be losing money most weeks.
You have admirably sacrificed a lot for Jamie and Andy. When you found yourself having to re-mortgage your house, send letters to people requesting donations, battle with the Lawn Tennis Association for funding, rarely buy new clothes or take time off work; what kept you going?
We were from a small town in a country – Scotland – that doesn’t really do tennis. We have terrible weather and very few good facilities, and no track record. So, it’s very difficult to influence people to sponsor potential in a sport where it’s almost like ‘don’t be silly, we don’t do tennis in Scotland’. I don’t think that (attitude) made it any easier. It’s a Scottish trait – we call it bloody mindedness – that if somebody tells you, you can’t do something, you immediately want to prove them wrong, and I’m one of those people. I found it very difficult to persuade them (the Lawn Tennis Association) to give me the support in Scotland for the national training programme that was running at the time and then actually for the boys when they needed to train overseas.
I had nobody to learn from in Scotland as nobody had ever done it before. I had to learn everything as I went along, and when I didn’t know something I would try and find people to help to advise. For the most part I tried to apply common sense and not let things get me down too much; but the biggest challenge was without question financial. If my kids had been exceptional team sport players like cricket or rugby or football, they would have been signed up by a club and the club would have taken care of everything and largely you as a parent wouldn’t have anything to do. In an individual sport it’s very different.
You not only had to finance one player’s rise but two as Jamie and Andy were born just 15 months apart and were going through the journey to become pro at the same time…
In the early stages it worked out easier because they were both the same gender and 15 months apart, so they were often playing in the same things so you were taking one car and going. But they play tennis very differently to each another so it’s not one-size-fits-all when you get to a stage where you need an environment that is specific to your skills set. That’s not so easy to find. When the two of them were doing it at the same time it became incredibly financially challenging.
Both Jamie and Andy pursuing a similar route at the same time must have heightened sibling rivalry. What effect do you think the constant comparison had on them?
The sibling rivalry has been a very big part of it, certainly a big part of what made Andy the uber-competitor that he is; having a big brother that was a bit bigger and a bit better than him through the formative years. He still wants to beat Jamie at everything. Nowadays that is mostly fantasy football. When I was around at the house a few weeks ago, I’d literally just sat down for something to eat and Andy goes: ‘Jamie got relegated from the fantasy football league’, and I went, ‘did he?’. ‘Yeah’, he said, and I could see that he was really pleased, so I asked, ‘who won?’ and he gleamed, ‘me’. Andy changes the rules to suit what he wants which is what he always did when he was younger if he was allowed to make the rules. It always makes me laugh that he still just wants to beat his brother at everything. It’s a big thing having each other to spar with. They were each other’s greatest supporter and greatest critic.
Andy has had his fair share of injury setbacks. The bipartite patella aged 16, back surgery in 2013, the most recent hip injury, to name but a few. He is expected to make a return at Queen’s on Tuesday after 11 months out injured. How has the last year been? Do you think this most recent period of rehabilitation has been made easier by the experiences of serious injury he had earlier in his career?
Yeah, I think it definitely helped. He had almost 6 months rehabbing a knee injury when he was a teenager and that’s a big learning thing and very difficult at a young age to deal with something that could be career-threatening. He gained a lot of strength from that and a lot of understanding of the patience and the discipline of doing everything that you’re told to do and not rushing it. Then, of course, he had back surgery in 2013 and that kept him out for 3 or 4 months. From that it takes you quite a lot of time to build up the match fitness and get back to where you want to be. I think all of these things will have helped him with this current injury. So now it’s a question of tip your toe in the water again and start to build up.
Andy has experienced some of his best career highs immediately following a period of rehab; for example, he won the US Junior Open aged 17 just 3 months after his first serious injury. Will Andy bounce back this grass court season?
I think you just have to wait and see. Nobody knows how long it will take. I think the most important thing for me is that he’s feeling good again and that he’s able to play again, because when something is such a big part of your life and is suddenly taken away from you, you realise how much you miss it. I know how much he’s wanted to get back out again.
Let’s talk about the doughnut moment. At Wimbledon 2013, you were spotted by a drone eating a lemon-iced doughnut before the first match of what turned out to be a Wimbledon-winning campaign for Andy; and, as a result of that initial victory, you made it a superstitious pre-match routine for the rest of Wimbledon fortnight. Will you be continuing this pre-match routine this grass court season?
They’ve stopped doing them at Wimbledon. Disaster.
For more insight into Judy Murray’s life story, read her autobiography, Knowing the Score: My Family and Our Tennis Story (2017).
Andy Murray makes his first competitive appearance since Wimbledon 2017 on Tuesday at Queen’s against Australian Nick Kyrgios.