Jana Novotná had the padded shoulders of the Duchess of Kent to lean on and sob when she lost her first Wimbledon final in 1993. Andy Murray had to do it standing hunched and alone, though surrounded by thousands in the Centre Court stands.
At the award distribution ritual following Sunday’s men’s final, Murray struggled to hold back tears after losing the Wimbledon title in four sets to Roger Federer. “Having invested so much effort and received unbelievable backing, it is difficult to control your reaction. The last thing you want is to cry on court, but there we go,” Murray later wrote in his BBC column.
Second-place finishes usually evoke a gentle tide of sympathy, but it’s not often that they result in an outpouring of adulation, which Murray received by shedding tears at the All England Club. It had almost the same effect, nearly 20 years after Novotná’s famous meltdown.
There are similarities and there are differences. Czech Novotná won new fans after her leaning act, including the Duchess, who remains a friend. Murray was already a hero by the time he played the final, watched by nearly 17 million viewers in Britain.
“I’ve been there,” Federer later said. “I know how it feels. It does show that we are human. I know we put on a poker face out there and we try hard, smash serves and balls...then all of a sudden, when everything’s said and done, it’s different.”
Novotná, whose first Grand Slam final was the 1991 Australian Open, lost the 1993 Wimbledon final after leading Steffi Graf 4-1 in the third set. The quintessential serve-and-volleyer, her athletic game ideal for the grass courts of the All England Club, lost another final in 1997 at the same venue before becoming fourth-time lucky in 1998—her first and only Grand Slam at her favourite venue.
Murray has been in four finals already—the 2008 US Open and 2010, 2011 Australian Open besides this year’s Wimbledon—which makes his position a shade worse than Novotná’s. But he is 25, four years younger than the Czech when she won the 1998 Wimbledon. At this stage, he is also, like Novotná, being considered the best player not to have won a Grand Slam title.
But unlike his other final losses, this one has exposed a side of his personality that will win him fans: emotion. His choking words resulted in an infectious outpouring—a teary girlfriend and mother in the stands were soon joined by several sobbing fans. It was a side of Murray not seen before.
After his semi-final win against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga just two days earlier on Friday, Murray looked relieved as he became the first British man to make it to the Wimbledon singles final in 74 years. He did not jump with joy, there were no cartwheels, high-fives; heck, he did not even smile. Not once.
He wrote for the BBC: “Before doing my post-match interview, I went to the bathroom and just sat there, splashed water over my face and calmed myself down. My attention then switched to the final.”
One of the reasons why Murray comes across as a complex personality is attributed to a childhood episode. In the Scottish town of Dunblane, Murray was an eight-year-old student when a deranged gunman, Thomas Hamilton, burst in and murdered 16 children and one teacher in 1996, reports AFP. Murray recalls surviving by hiding under a desk in the headmaster’s office.
“The weirdest thing was that we knew Hamilton… Then to find out he’s a murderer was something my brain couldn’t cope with,” AFP quotes Murray from his autobiography Hitting Back.
Murray’s coach since last year, Ivan Lendl, who watched expressionless from the stands as his ward played exceptional if unsuccessful tennis, had a similar career—and a seemingly similar personality. The Czech-born, who never cried and seldom smiled as a player, lost four Grand Slam finals before winning his first at the French Open in 1984. He never won at Wimbledon, losing two finals there. His influence on Murray so far has been positive, making changes not in the Scotsman’s game but in his attitude, without, of course, encouraging him to express emotion.
Whatever the reason for Murray’s stoicism, the otherwise stone-faced world No. 4 won new fans on Sunday, who will holler for him if he were to make another final at the All England Club—the kind of support, he says, that helps him play better.