First he scowled, then he snarled, and finally he smirked. Andy Murray had just done the impossible: he shattered the usually impenetrable psyche of Roger Federer. “You f--king stopped!” Federer yelled across the net after losing a point.
The 25-year-old Scot is the best player in tennis right now. Last year he lost a heartbreaker at Wimbledon, snatched gold in London, and ended a 76-year draught for Britain by winning his first grand slam at the U.S. Open. In an era ruled by three of the all-time best players, he showed he belonged.
Poised to win his second grand slam in Melbourne, why doesn’t anyone really like Murray?
Let’s examine his Australian Open semifinal match against Federer. Up 6–5 in the fourth set and serving for the match, Murray paused for a moment and winced before returning a shot. He thought it was out, but there was no call. Murray went on to win the point. Federer was pissed.
It’s annoying that Murray stopped. He also shouldn’t be able to gather himself to hit a winner after doing so. But that’s just the way the Scot likes it. He’ll use a mishmash of shots to lull the other guy into submission until he sees an opening and SNAP! He cracks a winner. And that’s exactly what he did to Federer.
Between points, Murray’s even more annoying. He labors on the court like the robber Marv from Home Alone (he even looks like the guy). He’ll grimace and grab his back. Or his leg. Or his arm. Is he hurt? Is he having a meltdown? He mumbles to himself after messing up. He mumbles toward his box. He’ll stare at his mom with a look that reads, “Why do I suck?!”
While Federer enters Zen mode, Rafael Nadal grits his teeth like a superhuman warrior, and Novak Djokovic doesn’t filter his face, Murray’s signature scowl reads like he’s getting a colonoscopy on court. Yet, he seems to enjoy being angry. He likes getting booed. When Federer won the fourth set in a tiebreak, Murray tossed the ball up and whipped his racket like a little brat throwing a tantrum. He whiffed.
Actually, Murray’s doing exactly what made John McEnroe lovable, only we aren’t nearly as charmed. What gives? After matches he seems like an intelligent man. Just watch him break down after losing Wimbledon in his fourth consecutive final failure. For God’s sake, the boy’s survived a school shooting.
There is one man who can save him, and it’s not Ivan Lendl, his coach and eight-time grand slam winner. Instead, it’s his biggest rival right now: Djokovic.
When Djokovic burst onto the scene after winning the Aussie Open in 2008, he was a brash hotshot challenging Federer and Nadal. Like Murray, he was disliked. He complained on court. He laughed like a jackass. And then he didn’t win a major for three years—but he kept doing his thing.
And then he got good in 2011. Really good. But winning two majors and being No. 1 in the world wasn’t enough. The crowds ganged up on him, especially in the U.S. Open semifinal in 2011, down two match points against Federer. Before Federer served, Djokovic nodded as if he understood that nobody wanted to like him. He then ripped a miraculous return winner and taunted the crowd. People took notice. Flash forward a year and there’s a cult of Djokovic, from a Uniqlo line to donkey cheese. Essentially though, he’s the same wacky guy.
Perhaps the underlying cause of the dislike toward Murray is that tennis fans, even though they like to tell themselves they like underdogs and change and surprise, are actually deeply conservative and enamored of predictability. Cheering for Federer and Nadal, and now Djokovic, is stable—it shows talent and hard work pay off, people don’t get old, and everything in the universe is in balance.
Five years from now, if Murray and Djokovic morph into the marquee matchup, no one’s going to dislike the scowling Scotsman. Instead, all hostility will be directed at the next phenom who threatens to disrupt tennis’s comfy arrangement.