26 Jan 2013

Andy Murray and the death of the plucky British loser

As Andy Murray prepares for his third grand slam final in a row, Channel 4 News looks at his rise to the top of men’s tennis – and why it’s messing with our minds.

Andy Murray - the man who re-routed the British losing streak? (Reuters)

The experience of watching Andy Murray – if you are British and a sports fan – has become almost a little unsettling, writes Anna Doble.

Not because we don’t feel thrilled at his fierce progress to the top of men’s tennis. And not because we fear a sudden collapse in his journey to sporting greatness. It’s quite the opposite.

Read more: Murray beats Federer to reach Australian Open final

The British sporting lexicon was signed off years ago with pre-agreed terms and conditions. It contained the words “plucky”, “admirable effort” and “quarter-finals” and it came with free tissues.

Now Murray, US Open champion, ranked number three but destiny-bound for the top slot, surely, has torn up this pathetic pamphlet and replaced it with a brick-sized tome marked: “Shut up, I win stuff.”

So what’s wrong with us – the fans and the journalists? Why can’t we recalibrate our feeble mindsets? Are we too emotionally scarred by penalty shoot-outs and Henmania?

Tennis fans draped in union flags watch Andy Murray beat Roger Federer. (Reuters)

“The paradigm of the plucky loser had its high season with Eddie the Eagle, Frank Spencer, and the Book of Heroic Failures. It was part of a post-war, post-colonial Britishness – the idea that all we had left was a sense of irony about inevitable decline,” Matthew d’Ancona, Sunday Telegraph columnist and author of Being British, tells Channel 4 News.

What sort of nation are we? What’s certain is that, against all prophecies, we aren’t content to be a country of cuddly losers. Matthew d’Ancona

“But that has been challenged repeatedly – by Thatcher, especially after the Falklands, by Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ and, most recently, by the spectacular success of the Olympics.

“Danny Boyle captured it perfectly – a combination of cultural confidence, social decency and undiminished ambition. It’s there in Cameron’s ‘global race’, in the debates about the future of Scotland and British membership of the EU.

“And it’s there in the difference between Henman and Murray. What sort of nation are we? What’s certain is that, against all prophecies, we aren’t content to be a country of cuddly losers.”

Psychological legacy

It was where a mountain of old fridges and murky canals used to meet that we first climbed aboard this weird twisted rollercoaster.

Anish Kapoor’s Orbit tower (below), which loomed over the Olympic Park in Hackney Wick, perfectly embodied our mental journey – although we didn’t know it at the time. “Boris’s Folly” it was called, then Boris himself dubbed it the “mutant trombone”. If we had known what we know now we might have called it “Diagram of the national psyche, before and after,” for its mad undulations described our London 2012 rehabilitation better than words.

We know the story now – down the road in west London Andy Murray, a double Olympic medallist, grinning constantly and sharing with us “the most fun I’ve had at a tennis tournament”. Homegrown heroes hugging golden post boxes, everywhere. A lurching, stupefying ride of relentless winning right here, in grumpy old Britain.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture, designed by Anish Kapoor, standing in front of the Olympic Stadium in the Olympic Park in London. (Getty)

So, the “legacy”, itself subject to eye-rolling scepticism. Well, we still want our youth clubs and cycle tracks and Jessica Ennis-inspired schoolgirls. But perhaps the legacy is best played out in our heads.

Andy Murray’s fist-pumping determination, his war cries and physical dominance, are a far cry from the Pimms and noble second round exits of bygone British tennis. We, like him, should not expect or accept that anymore.

But do you remember what happened a month before we began this national rehab? Andy Murray, plucky loser, was swept aside by Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final after an admirable effort.

Andy Murray plays Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final on Sunday