July 8, 2012 will go down as a landmark day in Andy Murray's career. His debut in the Wimbledon final ended in defeat, but he won over hearts on that Sunday afternoon.
Murray's path to his status as a national treasure has been a long one. When he emerged he was almost the antithesis of Tim Henman, the darling of SW19 for the late 1990s and early 2000s. Where Henman was smiley, clean cut and camera friendly, Murray was surly, dour and ultra-competitive. Where Henman took his defeats in good grace (and typical English fashion), Murray rocked the boat by berating himself in a volley of swear words.
The nadir was in 2006. With Wimbledon and the World Cup cross-scheduled, he was inevitably asked whom he would be supporting, with Scotland having failed to qualify. "Anyone but England, ha! ha!," he replied. It was obviously a light-hearted joke, but many people did not take it that way. It reinforced his typically Scottish persona and seemingly confirmed that Murray would never be embraced by the middle England crowd that frequents the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Six years on and the image was very different. Murray had finally won his first set in a Grand Slam final, having lost in straights on three previous occasions. Throughout the Wimbledon final, it seemed that Roger Federer was getting more support than the Brit, who was bidding to win his home tournament. But after the Swiss had wrapped up his 17th Major title, the mood turned.
Andy Murray, London 2012
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Murray received a rapturous reception as he stepped up to make a teary speech, which encapsulated his self-deprecating humour and emotion. Shortly afterwards, he was back on Centre Court in a showpiece final against Federer and winning gold for Team GB in the London Olympics. Later still in that rollercoaster summer, thousands across Britain stayed up well into the night to see him beat Novak Djokovic and win his first Slam at the US Open.
Murray may not have had a personality that instantly endeared him to fans who watch tennis casually, but it was recognised that he was an elite athlete, perhaps even the most distinguished Brit in his sport.
Since then, Britain's uneasy love affair with Murray has blossomed. His first Wimbledon title, in 2013, prompted jubilant scenes reminiscent of VE Day across the country, and his reported support for Scottish independence in 2014 barely made a dent in his public standing, a far cry from his throwaway joke about the England football team's fortunes almost a decade earlier.
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It is highly cruel that Murray's career fell away after his best year. In 2016, a second Wimbledon followed and he clinched the world number one ATP ranking by winning a second event in London, the ATP Finals. But within six months, he was limping around Centre Court, visibly injured. It is highly doubtful that he will ever be in contention for another Grand Slam title.
But the affection for him among the tennis-loving public and his fellow professionals was obvious. His tears when he admitted that the 2019 Australian Open could be his last tournament were front-page news. His tears of happiness when he beat Marius Copil in the early hours in Washington DC later that summer were cathartic for everyone, matched by his brilliant tournament win against Stan Wawrinka in the European Open at the tail end of last season. His comeback has ignited interest in the perennially-overlooked doubles draw at Queen's, and his mixed doubles journey with Serena Williams at Wimbledon filled out Centre Court, something previously unthinkable in the event.
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The coronavirus pandemic denied him the chance to make his latest comeback, at Miami in March. While he can be understandably frustrated at being in a position to play for the first time in 2020, only for the world to be turned upside down, Murray has been guilty in the past of playing through pain, exacerbating his original injuries and then suffering setbacks as he tried to make a return. When tennis, and Murray with it, finally does come back, all remaining niggles that could have affected him will be gone and he will have much the same match practice time under his belt as his rivals.
But even if the injuries have got the better of him, and he can never compete at the highest level again, his influence is undoubtable. He has delivered moments to British tennis fans that no man has done since the Second World War, and it is obvious that the sport is not just a living for him, but a passion. He is just as much an advocate for tennis as a champion player.
When he does decide to retire from the sport, he can be assured of a prized place, either in the sport itself, or in wider public life. He has won hearts and plenty of respect.