The Empire strikes back: Andy Murray and the Davis Cup

Andy Murray – seen here in his victory gesture at the 2012 Olympics – has added the Davis Cup to his impressive résumé.

Andy Murray – seen here in his victory gesture at the 2012 Olympics – has added the Davis Cup to his impressive résumé.

Great Britain has won the Davis Cup, defeating Belgium.

More accurately, Andy Murray has won the Davis Cup.

Any Cup championship is, first and foremost, about teamwork, with the country of the winning team getting the honors. Sports are forever entwined in politics as I illustrate in “Water Music,” the first novel in my series, “The Games Men Play.”

But tennis, like swimming, is also among the most individualistic of sports, and the tension between the individual and the team in these sports – another theme of “Water Music” – is part of their flavor.

There is no great swimming team without anchors like the United States’ Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte or, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Australia’s Ian Thorpe. And there are no great Davis Cup teams without a Novak Djokovic for Serbia (2010) or a Rafael Nadal for Spain (2011) or a Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka for Switzerland (2014).

And now Andy. He was perfect, 8-0, in Davis Cup play this year, the first player to be so since John McEnroe (for the United States) and Mats Wilander (for Sweden) in the 1980s. In his Davis Cup perfection, which included teaming with older brother Jamie for doubles, Andy gave Britain its first cup in 79 years.

Still, the Brits have been hard on Andy. But then, they have been hard on themselves, particularly since the postwar era. (Witness the self-deprecating humor of Hugh Grant in any of his films but especially “Notting Hill.”)

It is telling that Britain’s last winning Davis Cup team, led by the legendary Fred Perry, was in 1936. Storm clouds were gathering then on the Continent, and, three years later, Britain would be plunged into its second world war in 21 years.  Its “team” – led by one of the strongest political anchors history has ever seen, Winston Churchill – would save democratic civilization as we know it, with a strong assist from us Yanks. But, irony of ironies, the price of saving the pieces of the far-flung British Empire would be the Empire as a whole itself. The United States – long removed from that Empire and a good thing, too, else how would we have been strong enough to help with the war effort? – had no interest in maintaining postwar British colonialism. One by one, the pieces of empire broke away and were transformed into independent countries with varying degrees of success.

But the sun never set on the British Empire or at least not on its cultural aspect. The British gave the world their language – a wondrous gift of Norman and Anglo-Saxon influences, like the best of French and German, the tongue of Shakespeare and Shelley. Indeed, English is today the universal language, beloved by diplomats and tennis officials alike. (The announcement of the scores and admonitions for “Quiet, please” are all in English as they were this past weekend in Ghent for the Cup finals.) In this, British pop culture has been as important as its high culture. Witness the phenomena of “Sherlock Holmes,” particularly the Benedict Cumberbatch interpretation; “Downtown Abbey’; and Brit bands like The Beatles. (Here I’d also like to say “Hello,” Adele, and thank you for inspiring one of “Saturday Night Live’s” best sketches in years. 

But British sport has never been as strongly global as its forms of arts and entertainment. Which brings us back to Andy – a Scotsman who has delivered not only the Cup for England, Britain (England and Scotland) and the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) but the 2012 Olympic gold in men’s singles and Wimbledon and US Open titles. Isn’t it time to cut him some slack?

Yes, he can be amusingly infuriating – or should that be infuriatingly amusing? – with his grunts; his bursts of emotion as he fumes, one with Achilles, in his chair during changeovers; his F-bombs. Or he can be just plain bizarre. Witness him cutting his hair – Delilah to his own Samson – during a crucial match against Rafael Nadal in the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London the week before the Cup. (It was getting in his eyes.) The Internet was abuzz with that one but was it any more of a breach of tennis etiquette – and an example of possible gamesmanship – than Feddy taking Nole’s seat and letting him stew on a bench draped with one of the towels emblazoned with Fed’s name?

Andy has overcome back surgery to return to world No. 2 behind Nole, who tweeted his congrats on the Cup. He married his longtime love, Kim Sears, with whom he has started a family. (Their first child is due in February.) He’s the kind of guy who’s late for practice, because he stopped to find the owners of a lost dog, and who donates money to Syrian refugees every time he hits an ace.

And if he seems to be a step behind Nole, who is a week younger and who has known him since they played against each other as juniors, well, then, maybe he will take inspiration from his team’s Cup victory – as Nole did in 2010 – to launch a spectacular year in singles.

Perhaps more important, and certainly most poignantly, he looks to the heavens whenever he wins. Is he remembering the 16 schoolmates and the teacher at Dunblane Primary School who were gunned down in 1996 by Thomas Hamilton – who ran a youth group Andy attended – before he killed himself? A 9-year-old Andy hid in a classroom with other students that day.

Fate had something else in store for him, though. Like Winnie, he would be there when his country needed him most.