Anyone But Murray, eh? The ABM meme could hardly seem more tatty and irrelevant now, seven years after it was spawned with spite and ignorance, before the difficult Scot had proved Little Englanders and other snipers wrong with his eloquent tennis racket.
Instead, the question that is now being asked – and answered in the affirmative – across nearly every media platform is an uplifting one: is Andy Murray this country’s greatest-ever athlete?
The response has reached a crescendo of approval, with confirmation that the nation has voted him the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year for a record third time.
We are notoriously reluctant to embrace genius, as if such a judgment betrayed arrogance, but Murray, the most humble of champions, is building a case to put aside such quibbles – not that he is leading any trumpet charge in his own cause.
The Daily Telegraph recently declared him their “greatest ever”. But, even post-war – a perhaps more relevant gauge of his worth – Murray stands out.
There have been a score of generational heroes to celebrate since these awards began in 1954 and Murray was as clear a favourite to do the hat-trick as were any of his predecessors to win even once.
Jim Laker’s 19 Australian wickets at Old Trafford in 1956 lifted England’s cricketing gloom and there was no runner-up. Motor racing’s Stirling Moss edged the boxer Billy Walker in 1961 but neither won a world championship in their respective sports. The track and field athlete Mary Rand was the nation’s Olympic sweetheart in 1964, Bobby Moore her football World Cup equivalent two years later.
Virginia Wade was the tennis darling in Wimbledon’s centenary year, 1977, her victory embroidered by the Queen celebrating her Silver Jubilee with her first visit to the All England Club in 15 years. Her Majesty was back on Centre Court 33 years later to see Murray beat Jarkko Nieminen, and the Scot showed the Finn how to bow towards the Royal Box, which appalled republicans and appeased monarchists – unlike his advocacy of Scottish independence in 2014.
If his midnight aberration on Twitter with his brother, Jamie, fed into the tired ABM narrative, only the Daily Mail seemed much bothered. Gradually, Murray was winning over the nation, rarely with such power and resonance as when leading Great Britain to the country’s first Davis Cup in 79 years last year in Ghent. Surely, he had nothing left to prove.
Johanna Konta, newly installed in the WTA top 10 and Britain’s unchallenged No1, first met Murray when she was an ingenue from Australia via Bournemouth and he was a scrawny 15-year-old at the Sánchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona. Every bit as diffident as Murray, Konta said on Sunday: “I don’t think I’m in any position to comment on how deserving he is to win but, from a tennis standpoint, and from the way I know his journey more intimately, being a tennis player, what he has achieved is ridiculous. It’s incredible.”
She added: “He’s definitely transcended his sport now, in a way very few athletes ever get to do. He’s more than just a tennis player. He’s become an all-round athlete superstar, not just in this country, but globally. Very few people ever get to do that. In that context, he is definitely the most deserving.”
Murray never saw it panning out like this. He famously said four years ago, after conquering his peers at the US Open, that if he won only one grand slam title in his career he could retire a happy man. He is 29, fitter than ever and has won two since then, both of them at Wimbledon, most recently last July, and there is every likelihood he will add a fourth major to his collection in Melbourne next month, buoyed by displacing Novak Djokovic as the world No1. Retirement is at least three or four years away.
Murray has never defined his life or his tennis career by accolades or the praise of others, however welcome those might be. He has always judged himself by the amount of effort he has put in, before a tournament and during it, in a particular point – however slim the chances of winning it – game, set, match or tournament.
There was a time when he prioritised the slams but Ivan Lendl, more influential in his career than any single mentor bar his mother, Judy, convinced Murray that he needed to maintain a rush of intensity throughout the season if he were ever to topple Djokovic, whom he had trailed almost since they first met. It took immense dedication and fitness but Murray has proved equal to the challenge.
After returning from Rio with a second Olympic gold medal, it was this refocusing that helped him win five Tour titles and 25 matches in a row at the end of the 2016 season that kept him ahead of Djokovic in the race to the ATP’s No1 ranking. The Serb, so confident of a calendar slam after beating Murray in the Australian and French Open finals, collapsed at Wimbledon as his personal life intruded on his tennis and injury compounded his dilemma.
Murray forged on, holding off Djokovic’s late charge and beating him convincingly in the final of the last tournament of the season, the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in Greenwich last month.
He deserves every trinket that has come his way and the word is there is one more to come. If Murray does get the call to Buckingham Palace for a knighthood in the New Year honours list, as has been strongly rumoured, he will at least know how to bow.