Wimbledon and the Family Romance

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do,
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.
—Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse”

After defeating Novak Djokovic to become the gentlemen’s singles champion at Wimbledon, Andy Murray wandered ecstatically around the court, shaking his fists at the crowd who were ecstatic themselves, celebrating the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936 (about which, more later). He sat down for a brief moment before remembering that every champion now makes the climb up into the stands to share the moment with their supporters—or “team” as they are usually called. So Murray dutifully climbed and in turn hugged each member of his team before beginning to make his way back down to the court to receive his trophy.

But he forgot about his mum. “I did forget her” Murray would later admit, “I just heard her squealing behind me when I was trying to get down.” How big of a slight this is probably depends upon your degree of commitment to Freudian psychology. But suffice it to say, Judy Murray is no ordinary tennis mother. She belongs to the All England Lawn and Tennis Club, coaches Britain’s Fed Cup Team, and roots her son on with a glowering intensity that some find frightening and others find “domineering” (I know the photo is playful, Judy and Andy, but it isn’t helping things). She was also Murray’s first coach, and her looming presence has shaped his professional career as he’s gone through no fewer than six coaches (a number far higher than that of his elite peers: Roger Federer has had three coaches, having gone much of his pro career without one, Rafael Nadal has had one—his Uncle Toni, and Djokovic has had one). This is probably not by accident, since compared to other players on tour, Murray has always seemed the most childish, struggling to recognize the difference between constructive criticism and overbearing authority, equal parts colicky and guilt-ridden. In an emotional and strangely revealing gesture, Murray apologized to his mother after losing the 2010 Australian Open to Federer (Judy said there was nothing to apologize for and that she would always be proud of Andy, but that’s not the point).

Murray can certainly be disagreeable, sometimes arguing with his coaches, sometimes with himself, sometimes both. And since distancing himself from his mother Murray has, in true Oedipal fashion, grappled with coaches/father figures one after another, casting aside those who gave in to his demands too easily as well as those who tried to impose their authority on him more forcefully. Finally he’s settled on part-human/part-block of wood Ivan Lendl, who presents the ideal father figure, one emotionally distant enough that Murray can strive to please him without ever actually doing so (at the :08 mark is Lendl’s display of unfettered exuberance after the player he mentors becomes the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years and accomplishes probably the most important British athletic feat since Arthur removed Excalibur from the stone).

Marion Bartoli did not forget to hug her father after she scaled the stands to celebrate her Wimbledon Ladies’ Championship with her team. But she hugged her coach, Amelie Mauresmo, before her father, a sequential hugging order that to some observers seemed significant, if not symbolic. Bartoli’s father, Walter, gave up his medical practice to become her tennis coach when his daughter was six, running a strict no-cookie training regimen. Despite having never played tennis himself, Walter helped shape Marion’s rather unorthodox, some might say “quirky,” style of play (it’s actually almost impossible to find an article on Bartoli that doesn’t use the term “quirky”)—a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Tennis Player with a reported genius-level IQ of 175, a two-handed forehand, and lots of spritely bouncing about the court.

Bartoli remained dedicated to her father even when doing so interfered with her ability to participate in the Olympics. But after some disappointing results and a two-year title drought, in February she did what many only dream they could: she fired her father. Five months later, she won Wimbledon.

In tennis the family romance plays out right before our eyes in ways that are more direct than in other sports. (Were Freud around today he might be tempted to forgo the case studies altogether and just follow the men’s and women’s tours: who needs the Wolf Man when you’ve got the Williams Sisters?). Alone on the court without the help of a coach, tennis is the loneliest sport, as this supremely weird commercial featuring Andre Agassi tells us (tennis as a conduit for New-Age emotional well-being on the astral plane!). After all, even your opponent is all the way on the other side of the court. Your “team” may be there rooting you on from a distance, but they are prohibited from communicating with you directly; they are visible but impotent, which somehow makes their presence even more powerful and turns the court into a landscape of tumultuous psychodrama. Witness the performance of Sabine Lisicki, Bartoli’s opponent in the Wimbledon final, whose cavalcade of unforced errors led to her tear-stricken meltdown on Centre Court. Only the staunchest skeptics of Freud would refuse to see a correlation between Murray’s and Bartoli’s triumphs and the emotional distance they’ve begun to place between themselves and their respective parents.

For Freud, though, once you’ve dispensed with your parents (not literally, let’s hope), you find that the family romance has replicated itself in the social order, so that breaking free of parental figures is like a game of psychological Whac-A-Mole: just as you’ve clubbed down one authority figure, another one rises up. Take Murray: he’s finally freed himself from his mother (relatively speaking) and found a coach who stoically tolerates his hard-headed ways, only to find himself claimed by a nation (Great Britain) about whom he’s always been ambivalent and who, in turn, has been ambivalent about him. Murray has always had to walk the fine line between Scottish and British identity, careful to appease the one without offending the other and vice versa. For a child of divorced parents as Murray is, the Britain-Scotland entanglement and antagonism must offer a whole new set of complexities when looking for acceptance and deciding whom to please.

So after you finally win the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world—a tournament which no one from your country has won in a really, really long time—and receive the unqualified, unadulterated support of Great Britain (finally “officially 100% British!,” although the “as of today” sounds pretty ominous) what’s left? Have you finally carved out your own psychological space free of the demands and expectations of millions of people you’ll never meet? Have you finally, thoroughly whacked all the moles? Probably not, so now’s as a time as any to discuss whether you deserve to be knighted.

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