FRONDORF: The Murray effect

Looking back, Monday wasn’t the best night to be at the U.S. Open. Top seed Roger Federer had already played earlier in the afternoon, and the Andy Roddick farewell tour wouldn’t resume until the next day.

But watching two rising stars gave me hope that passion still lives somewhere in sports today.

Those of us seated in the upper promenade level were assaulted with a harsh, humid wind that foreshadowed rain coming to Queens. The tournament organizers obviously recognized this before I did and moved one of the two scheduled night matches out of Arthur Ashe and into the smaller Louis Armstrong stadium. The Williams sisters were pushed out of the main bill, so the remaining match had to be something huge that included Novak Djokovic, right?

Nope. Most of the 20,000-plus night-session attendees (including me) stuck around to see unassuming third seed Andy Murray take down youngster Milos Raonic in straight sets.

Murray isn’t American. He’s not as flashy as Rafael Nadal, nor as confident (or dare I say arrogant?) as Federer or Djokovic. But on Monday night, men and women alike pleaded, “Come on Murray!” — though the result was never really in doubt. At some point, I had to feel bad for Raonic, the 21-year-old Canadian with a massive serve but no love from the Americans at Arthur Ashe. He was clearly the underdog, but unfortunately, he was up against tennis’s definition of underdog. Is that why we love Andy Murray? Are we captivated by a simple beat-the-odds story? Or is there something more to our fascination with the Grand Slam-less Briton?

My deep investigation into this topic took me back to my own experience in London this summer. I arrived in the midst of Wimbledon, and not unexpectedly, the city was abuzz with tennis talk. In between the Queen’s Jubilee and the rapidly approaching Olympics, Londoners still made time for tennis. Horrible tennis puns headlined the British tabloids, and not surprisingly, the focus was all on hometown boy Andy.

With Murray-mania in full force, it was impossible not to root for him. I watched the Wimbledon final at the aptly named Sports Café in the heart of London, and I’ve never seen a crowd’s energy rise and fall with every point like it did for Murray. The atmosphere was jubilant one moment but turned absolutely silent when he lost a crucial service game in the fourth and final set.

Andy lost to Federer at Wimbledon, but perhaps the most important moment for the evolution of his career came right after the conclusion of the final. Post-match interviews are usually trivial, but this one was special. Murray, overcome with emotion, realized right there that he lost his chance to beat big bad Roger on his home court. He was respectful, graceful and restrained, although his eyes filled with tears. And then, as if he needed to apologize, he choked out:

“I am getting closer.”

This is when I realized that Murray is more than an underdog. He’s human. Rafa, Djokovic, Roger — they’re celebrities. They’re cool, calm and collected — winning Grand Slam tournaments is just part of the job description.

Murray steps onto the court like he has something to prove, yet he’s captivatingly vulnerable. He curses and slams his racket after a bad point, but the anger is focused pitifully inward. He gets mad at himself, and it’s easy to see his displeasure. The glum facial expressions, the looks of dejection between games when things aren’t going right — this is a guy who lets the world know what he’s feeling.

And that’s what we love, especially when those dour scowls transform into brilliant, genuine displays of emotion and joy, like they did just a couple weeks after Wimbledon when Murray outplayed Federer to earn an Olympic gold medal. The desperately-needed rematch on the All-England Club’s Centre Court put Andy back in good spirits. But Olympic gold won’t be enough for Murray — like soccer or basketball in the Olympics, Olympic tennis isn’t yet considered the pinnacle of competition, and elite players don’t win with consistency, nor is it all Murray is shooting for in his career.

That’s what I want to see more of in today’s businesslike sports world — more emotion, more evidence that the game matters to athletes, and more ambition. We just got a big dose of small-name, hardworking success stories during the Olympics, but that’s not something I want to see just every four years. The rest of the time, Americans focus on the major team sports, and we’re not rewarded with the passion we expect. Too often we see NBA or MLB players look as if they don’t care or as if they’re just going through the motions.

Aspiring professional athletes talk so much about “making it to the bigs” or “getting drafted out of college,” but when they finally make it, we’re frequently greeted with complacency and even laziness. Perhaps they’re jaded by today’s sports culture, which focuses in on athletes starting in high school — maybe the attention and the platform is old news after a few years.

Yes, competing professionally is technically a job. Yes, there’s a contract and requirements and bonuses. But sports are also supposed to be something more — there’s a reason you’re playing and we’re watching. To me, disinterest in your position of privilege is shortsighted and immature. You’re not just an employee on the NBA or MLB payroll.

Andy Murray is more than a tennis player. He’s one of us — both haunted and motivated by his failures, but grateful for his successes. And if we saw more of that energy and humility elsewhere in professional sports, we’d see a much-needed return to an era where athletes were role models and competitors instead of too-cool celebrities.

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