Sports Nut

Andy and Jamie

How Andy Murray’s obsession with beating his older brother helped him become a Wimbledon champion.

As children, the Murray brothers competed fiercely no matter the game.
As children, the Murray brothers competed fiercely no matter the game. The rivalry was often played out over a game of Swingball, as here, with Andy on the right of the picture.

Courtesy of Judy Murray

In his long-form essay Murrayball: How to Gatecrach the Golden Era, journalist Hugh MacDonald traces Andy Murray’s journey from his boyhood in Scotland to this year’s historic Wimbledon title. In this exclusive excerpt, MacDonald describes how Murray’s rivalry with his older brother pushed him to become a great athlete. To read the rest of MacDonald’s essay, you can purchase Murrayball exclusively through the Kindle store.

Andy Murray stands on a beach. He is 2 years of age and he looks expectantly at an older girl who is ready to release the swingball. His brother Jamie, 15 months older, is at his side. They are ready to play, but playing always means winning. The serious looks reflect that truth.

Nature and nurture gave Andy Murray excellent coordination, a build for sport, and a fury for competition. Crucially, nature also gave him Jamie. The Murray household and that of his grandmother were the scenes of hard-fought games from a young age. Swingball—a tennis game played with a ball attached to a pole by a cord—was the acme of sophistication in comparison to the rudimentary elements of catching and throwing that formed the basis of much of their childhood activity. The games always involved scoring. Someone had to win, someone had to lose. Often, it was Andy. Jamie was, and is, a fine athlete, lithe and with an accomplished touch; he was ranked one of the top players in the world at under-12 level. Contemporaries remember Jamie as the Murray more likely to succeed at the top level. Their recollection is that Andy was unfocused, unready to commit exclusively to tennis.

Andy, handicapped by age, found it difficult to match his elder. It did not stop him trying. His mother, Judy, remembers that as early as the age of 5, Andy had become a competitor. Taken to the tennis courts, he was not interested in a knockabout. He wanted to play points because there was, well, no other point. Andy proceeded to whoop in joy when winning a rally against mother or either of his grandparents.

All this precedes a scene more than a decade later when the burgeoning Scottish tennis tyro was working with Bob Brett, the veteran Australian coach. On the very first ball of a drill, Brett hit a wide ball for him to retrieve and Murray just looked at it. Brett asked: “Why aren’t you running for the ball?”

Andy replied: “Because it was out.”

This blinkered focus on winning the point was honed in hand-to-hand combat with Jamie. The highest level was a goal, rather than a dream, for both of them from an early age.

“I think both of us loved sports,” says Andy. “He played lots of golf, both of us played a lot of football, we played some squash and obviously tennis. It’s just something we have always done. I didn’t particularly enjoy school, but I enjoyed going to play football and practice tennis … doing PE rather than learning about science.”

Jamie, who was a successful pupil, shared his brother’s passion for sport. “We started [playing tennis] when we were about three or four years old. I guess we were always the top ones in our age group at national level and international level, to an extent. It was natural that we thought we could be tennis players and make a career from it.”

And so it came to pass. Both have won grand slam titles; Andy’s victory at Flushing Meadows was preceded in 2007 by his brother’s win in the mixed doubles final at Wimbledon, where he partnered Jelena Jankovic.

But a decade before, this intense rivalry pushed the younger brother to prodigious levels at an early age. Andy found the only avenue open to him as a 5-year-old competitor was to play in under-14 league matches. Accustomed to being outmuscled and outplayed by his talented elder brother, Andy did not take a step back against his older rivals.

The rivalry between the brothers spanned sports. There was no escape from the joint outpouring of their will to win. No game was just pure fun. A chat to Jamie about golf was once interrupted by Andy. Jamie was, perhaps still is, a three-handicap golfer. This latter observation brought the jibe from his brother that, “I must be a two-handicap golfer because I always beat you.” This mischievous exchange occurred in 2007 when Andy might have been forgiven for being more concerned about his imminent entry into the world top 10 for the first time. It was followed by another bout of verbal sparring.

When asked about how young his brother was when he first tried to kick his ass, Jamie replies succinctly, “About four.” Andy added: “You have to ask our mum and dad what we were like when we used to play together when we were younger. It’s still like that today.” Like what? It remains unanswered in a blur of banter.

But the exchange articulates the reality that Jamie was the brother who provided the serve to return, the ball to be chased, the opponent to be overcome, the battle to be contested. And ultimately won. The first time that Andy beat Jamie remains the subject of one of those family arguments that can be resolved as easily as knitting a jumper out of fog. But it happened. The satisfaction it gave the younger brother cannot be underestimated, but it infused him with a more profound and productive quality: confidence. The world was now opening up to the Dunblane youngster, but what was the next step, the next marginal gain? It was to be a substantial leap rather than a hesitant skip.

Murray knew in his early teenage years that he had to play regularly against better opponents. He was talking to Rafael Nadal, a contemporary at the top youth tournaments, when the Spaniard told the Scot he had been hitting with Carlos Moya, then one of the world’s best players. Murray had not so much outgrown Jamie but moved away from him in a physical sense. The older brother was working with the LTA in England, but Andy opted for Barcelona. He could play full-time there, he could play against those contemporaries who wanted to break on to the ATP tour and in the benign weather of Catalonia he could play all day and most of the night.

It was about winning, of course. His audition was a trademark Murray moment. He played Emilio Sanchez, co-founder of the Sanchez–Casal academy in Barcelona. Sanchez, brother of Arantxa, a former world No.1 in women’s tennis, was a three-time grand slam winner in doubles. He was 35. Murray was 13. The Scot beat him 6–3, 6–1.

“From the first moment when we played together I realized how difficult it would be to play against this kid when he was grown up, because he had these tools,” says Sanchez. “When you were forcing him to the side of the court he always seemed to have an answer for it. The best way for me to tell how good a player is, is to play with them. Then you see that they are able to come out with solutions.”

Murray’s day at the academy was rigorous. It involved tennis training from 9 a.m. to noon, fitness from noon to 1 p.m., lunch from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., school 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., more tennis from 4.30 p.m. to 6 p.m., then more school from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m..

The Scot was a rising star. He had the technique, he had the shots. He won the U.S. Open juniors in 2004, defeating Sergiy Stakhovsky of Ukraine in straight sets. As always, Jamie was not far away. The junior grand slam came just two days after the brothers had been beaten in the semifinals of the doubles tournament.

“This is my favorite tournament and I would love to come back and win here as a senior. My long-term aim is to make the world’s top 10,” said Andy in the wake of a junior major. He was to achieve both goals within a decade.

But there is always another step, and other gain to make.

Sanchez said: “When he was very young and came to the academy he always talked about being No.1 and now he is getting close to the target. He was born to do it.”

And his brother was born not only to play doubles tennis at the top level, but to help his brother take on the world.

To read the rest of Hugh MacDonald’s essay, you can purchase Murrayball exclusively through the Kindle store.