by: Steve Tignor | September 18, 2012

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Andy Murray is having his moment. Since winning the U.S. Open one week ago, he has appeared in the States on serious talk shows (Charlie Rose) and not so serious (Jimmy Fallon). He’s combed his hair for a photo shoot in Central Park, been escorted through a London airport by smiling female flight attendants, sat primly at a fashion show with Anna Wintour, and appeared, for the most part without a scowl on his face, on the front page of every newspaper in the United Kingdom. It’s amazing how much winning a single set—the fifth against Novak Djokovic in their final—can raise a man’s profile and polish his reputation. Imagine what the reaction would have been if he had lost it.

On second thought, don’t imagine it. Blowing a two-set lead in a Grand Slam final would have been, as Murray put it after the match, “a tough one to take.” Roughly translated from Murray-speak, that means it would have been the most soul-crushing defeat of his career. Instead, for the first time, the man who once couldn’t win the big one has been celebrated without reservation in his home country. And in his hometown. This weekend, the Murray moment reached its joyous peak when he returned to Dunblane and was greeted by 15,000 people who had waited in the rain for hours to cheer him. Murray, who said he “hadn’t been part of anything like this before,” has never looked as proud as he did standing, with his two Olympic medals around his neck, next to a special gold post office box that the town constructed in his honor. Even to them, the people who knew him way back when when, Muzz must have seemed like a new man.

Winning raises your profile and changes your reputation among the general public, but it can even change the perceptions of those who have followed you closely over the years. I had that sense while watching Murray’s world-record-length press conference after the final. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a transcript that has stretched to seven pages.) That night I had written the Racquet Reaction for our website, which is done before the pressers. So I was free to watch Murray’s without having to write about it; instead of listening for specific comments that I could use in an article, I just listened. By the end, after those seven pages’ worth of words, I felt a little differently about him, or at least about the way he interacts with the media.

This was the first line that sent laughter through the room. It came after Murray said how relieved he had felt when the match was over.

Q: You just said “relief.” Is there a moment when you thought, “exultation,” too?

ANDY MURRAY: I don’t know what that means

That turned out to the theme of the press conference. Everyone, myself included, noted that Murray didn’t smile—at least until he was asked why he wasn’t smiling. This is the Muzz way, of course. He was understated, to say the least, in his moment of triumph on court. When he walked up to accept the first Grand Slam winner’s trophy of his career, he did it with that same achy, half-hobbling gait that we know so well from his matches.

Murray is followed by more reporters, and asked more questions (in English, at least), than any other tennis player. I had thought at times that his way of answering them—unsmiling, even-keel, monotonic—was a way of keeping his distance and revealing as little as possible. If you’re going to be asked questions every day of your life, it’s better not to get too emotionally involved in them. But in the few times that I had talked to Murray one on one, I was surprised that he hadn’t seemed all that distant or guarded. (One of those interviews took place over the phone while I was walking to my tennis club; it is, admittedly, fun to tell your opponent that the person you were just chatting with on your cellphone was Andy Murray.)

In my brief conversations with him, Murray had been serious and thoughtful, and that’s how he came across in his post-final presser. He wont give you a snarky retort, like Andy Roddick; he won’t come up with a nugget of stoical philosophy, like Rafael Nadal; and he’s not as his ease the way Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer typically are after they win. (Murray can also be the master of the obvious. Referring to his tears after the match, he said, “You know, I cried a little bit on court. You’re not sad; you’re incredibly happy.”) But Murray also won’t give you a cliché if he can help it. While his words may not be clever or revelatory, he does his best to be honest and not just tell you what you want to hear.

For example:

When Murray was asked what was going through his mind when Djokovic took a medical timeout as he was getting ready to serve out the match, he said, “I thought, you know, Where are you going to serve, first point?” (As with several of his answers in this presser, this one was Lendl-esque in its tunnel-vision practicality.)

Asked whether, at the start of the fifth set, he was thinking about his previous four final-round losses in Grand Slams, Murray said, “I was thinking a bit more about what happened the last couple of sets and the situation I found myself in after nearly four hours of play...I got a bit fortunate to get the break at the beginning of the set, and that helped. I got a net cord on the slice backhand. Then I settled down a bit after that.”

Had his Olympic experience helped him, the way so many writers believed it had? Murray admitted that he wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know whether the Olympics helped me today or not....Before the match, when I was sitting in the locker room, there were still doubts. You’re still thinking, If I lose this one, you know, no one’s ever lost their first five finals. I just didn’t really want to be that person.”

Had he thought about being the first British man to win a Grand Slam since 1936? “You try not to think about it much when you’re playing,” Murray said, “but when I was serving for the match, I realized how important that moment was, for British tennis or British sport. I’m obviously proud that I managed to achieve it, and I don’t have to get asked that stupid question again.”

Finally, Murray was asked why he didn’t seem to be more excited. “It’s hard to explain,” he said, searching for the honest answer, even if it wasn’t the most crowd-pleasing. “It’s been a long, long journey to this point. So I’m just, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s disbelief or whatever. I’m very, very happy on the inside. I’m sorry if I’m not showing it as you would like.”

That last line sounds sarcastic in print, but that’s not how Murray meant it. He was honestly sorry he couldn’t express his happiness more easily. It’s a reaction—disbelief, numbness—that I could see having myself at a moment like that. “Relief,” the primary emotion Murray said he felt at that moment, doesn’t typically lead to someone pulling his shirt off and twirling it over his head.

Tennis has a new champion in Murray, which means that his personality becomes more significant to the sport. His profile has been raised, and his reputation changed. Is it too much to ask that he becomes better known for his honesty, lack of pretension, and thoughtfulness, than for the fact that he isn’t, and will never be, Mr. Smiley?

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