The usually reassuring world of tennis, where “battles” and “struggles” are dominated by sweat and hope rather than bullets and death, feels a more dangerous place today. The Davis Cup final is still due to start on Friday in Ghent, just 35 miles from Molenbeek, the suburb of Brussels where the assault on Paris was apparently planned. Great Britain’s tennis team, having delayed their departure by a day, left for Belgium on Monday, with indications that the final will be played despite security concerns.
In such dark and troubling days it is worth celebrating a sweeter story in which a single Scottish family has transformed the moribund state of British tennis to the point where, as Jamie Murray suggests, Great Britain are favourites to win their first Davis Cup since 1936.
“I guess we’re favourites on paper because … well … we’ve got him on the team,” he says, pointing at his younger brother on the television screen above our heads. In the midst of this interview Andy Murray, who ends 2016 ranked as the world’s second best tennis player, had just won a singles match at the ATP World Tour Finals near the end of one of his most successful years on the circuit. He and Jamie, who has enjoyed his best year as a doubles player, will play together in the Davis Cup final’s probably decisive rubber on Saturday.
This interview took place before Paris was attacked so devastatingly – and there is now an unsettling backdrop of fear in Belgium. The Murray story had its own brush with terror because Jamie and Andy were both at Dunblane primary school on 13 March, 1996 when 16 of their fellow students and a teacher were shot dead by Thomas Hamilton. But the Murray boys were not hurt and it is understandable that Jamie, 29, prefers to highlight the fact that this Davis Cup achievement is shared with their mum, Judy – and also by Leon Smith, their former coach who is now the GB captain.
“It’s incredible, really,” says Jamie. “When we walked out for the doubles on the Saturday in the semi-final against Australia in Glasgow it was the three of us – Andy, me and Leon – and mum was up in the stands watching. Leon worked with Andy for longer but he was with me for almost two years. He’d first worked with us when we were 10 and 11 and Leon was only 21. We’ve all come a long way since then.
“It’s a unique situation and it means even more to us because mum took Leon under her wing and mentored him. She gave him the opportunity to get into performance coaching. It’s really cool Leon’s in charge and our parents and grandparents are going to be in Ghent cheering us on.”
The Murray family have always been more comfortable celebrating their past in Dunblane in terms of Scottish pride, tennis and a tight-knit community, rather than amid the stark memory of a massacre which devastated so many families. Four years ago, when Andy defeated Gilles Müller of Luxembourg to help GB move a step closer to promotion to the World Group, he broke down and cried during the post-match interview in Glasgow.
“He was just feeling the love from the crowd and it got to him,” Jamie said. “He doesn’t get the chance to come to Scotland much and he has great support at home. The Davis Cup just means a huge amount to both me and Andy.”
Jamie, the older sibling by 15 months, gazed up at the television and explained what his brother offers their doubles partnership. “Andy brings a calmness to me because I know what I’m going to get from him. Our games really complement each other when we’re playing well. It doesn’t matter that we don’t play often together outside of Davis Cup because we know each other so well. This year, we’ve played some great matches together, especially against France and Australia.
“Of course, for us, the doubles is the key match. Andy carries the weight of responsibility, doesn’t he? He’s the guy who has to win both his matches and then we have to try and win a third rubber and our best chance is probably in the doubles. But we played the United States and if James Ward hadn’t won that first day against John Isner it would’ve been very different. Me and Dom [Inglot] lost that very close match to the Bryan brothers and so James’ win was crucial. But, against France and Australia, Andy and I knew if we didn’t win the doubles that was us done.
“There is pressure but that’s what I like. It’s much more fun playing in front of a packed crowd than 50 people. When I was growing up this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to play on the biggest courts in front of lots of people … Davis Cup has given me the chance to do that this year.
“We’re expecting a brilliant experience in Belgium. I think it will be hard to match the atmosphere in Glasgow but they’re getting 13,000 people which is 4,000 more than Scotland. I think we’ll have 1,300 travelling supporters – 10% of the allocation. Davis Cup is so intense because the noise levels make every point mean something. Even at 1-1, 15-15 you feel you have to win the next point otherwise the world is going to end. That’s the hardest and most draining part – but that’s the beauty of the Davis Cup.”
Those words were said in more innocent days. But, with Belgium in lockdown, the atmosphere will be far more intense than the two grand slam finals Jamie reached this year. He and John Peers were runners-up at Wimbledon and the US Open, and the personal success of 2016 stands in sharp contrast to the muddled place he occupied three years ago.
“For a couple of years it was tough and I didn’t have a steady partner. I was playing with lots of different guys and didn’t have much direction. I was just pitching up each week and scrapping around looking for partners. I was just floating around, not achieving anything, just existing on the tour.
“After the Australian Open in [January] 2013 I spoke to John about playing a few tournaments. We won one of our earliest tournaments together in Houston, when we beat the Bryans, which was a bit of a confidence boost. We won three tournaments that year and things started to get much better.”
When he and Peers began to play together did he feel it was his final chance to make a lasting impact?
“In a way I did. It was a great opportunity to make a partnership work and build something long-term. I didn’t have a partner, my ranking had dropped, I wasn’t sure where I was going. Thankfully it’s worked out. I’m now ranked No7 in the world and we’ve now got the Davis Cup final. It’s been a big turnaround.”
Doubles partnerships are like marriages and many are not strong enough to last. “Absolutely,” says Jamie.”You spend a lot of time together and you get to know all the good and bad stuff about each other.”
Before they made their final appearance together at the O2 Arena last week, when they squandered a chance to reach the semis of the tour finale despite holding five match points against the Bryan brothers, it was announced that Murray would play next year with the Brazilian Bruno Soares.
It can be assumed that the reasons for switching to Soares are rooted in a belief that Murray played extremely well in the Wimbledon and US Open final defeats – both of which were straight-set losses in partnership with Peers. “I played a good match in the Wimbledon final. I lost six points on my serve the whole match but we didn’t have a chance to break serve after the first set. It was a strange match because I was holding my serve easily and [their opponents Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau] were holding theirs pretty easy. And then we lost John’s serve twice and that was it.
“At the US Open, again, I played well. My stats were great and I held my serve really easily until the last game when I got broken. But I won over 70% of points on second serves. We had our chance in the first set and should have taken it but some poor shots were played.”
Murray shrugs and then smiles. “It’s still been a brilliant year. Two grand slam finals are pretty good and we’ve won three really exciting Davis Cup ties so far. Now we’ve got a final to look forward to … and we’ve got Andy leading the team which must make us favourites.
“He wouldn’t want me to say that but it’s true. It won’t be easy but if you’d told us at the start of the year that we’d be in the final against Belgium we’d have bitten your hand off. They’ve got a good team and won some great matches – but we’ve got a great chance to win it.”
Great Britain have the Murray brothers, their old coach, and their mum, Judy. “I know she’ll be very nervous,” Jamie says. “She was under a lot of strain when watching me and Andy have that five-setter against the Aussies. But this is a special moment for her. She was a pretty good player herself but it was tough for her being in Scotland with the limited facilities. When we were growing up she made sure we got the things that she didn’t. That gave us the best chance to be tennis players. She was very smart in that way.”
Does he think that the LTA have failed to capitalise on the success of his brother’s two grand slam titles? “I think so. I don’t see how anyone can say they have capitalised on it. That’s been a big disappointment. We were fortunate we had Tim [Henman] and Greg [Rusedski] for a long time and the country just got really lucky Andy picked up the torch.
“They have to find ways to capitalise on the interest he has generated in tennis in this county. He’s not going to be around forever and it will be a shame when he stops playing if there is no legacy to show what he’s done for British tennis.”
He has no doubt what needs to be done – and points to his mother. “She should have a tennis centre. She has done so many great things for tennis in the UK. Not just because she is Andy’s and my mum. She’s done so much more. And she knows what it takes to produce players and to mentor coaches. I think the LTA should be falling over themselves to get her more involved. I really hope she gets her own centre. She deserves it but British tennis needs it.”
That struggle, both for British tennis and for Judy Murray to establish her own centre in Scotland, sounds ordinary and innocent when set against the atrocities of Paris and the apprehension in Belgium. But this weekend in Ghent, the aims of one Scottish family, representing their country in a Davis Cup final, will seem even more noble and pure.