Murray’s Wimbledon Victory Divides U.K., Then Reunites It

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Chris Helgren / Reuters

Tennis player Andy Murray of Britain cradles the trophy under a statue of former British champion Fred Perry, at Wimbledon, southwest London July 8, 2013

Britons are champions—champion sunbathers—programmed by an uncertain climate to seize every rare opportunity to roast themselves scarlet. But though Sunday served up the most perfect day of a damp summer, London‘s parks and streets remained eerily deserted, the city’s usual cacophony stilled but for occasional collective groans, gasps and odd strangled shouts. And then came the cheers, erupting at the source of joy, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in southwest London. They resounded the length and breadth of the utterly united United Kingdom as Andy Murray, a 26-year-old Scot, lifted the Wimbledon trophy.

It was a stunning victory. In defeating the world’s top ranked player, Serbian Novak Djokovic, Murray became the first Briton to win the U.K.’s homegrown Grand Slam singles title for decades. Headline writers at two national newspapers, the Times and the Daily Mirror, were so overcome that they proclaimed him the first British winner for 77 years, harking back to Fred Perry’s 1936 achievement and overlooking Virginia Wade’s 1977 Wimbledon triumph. There had already been anger over dismissive coverage of the women’s championship this year. The BBC apologized after one of its presenters mused live on-air, ahead of the women’s July 6 final, that French player Marion Bartoli may have gained her determination to win from the childhood realization she would never “be a looker.” After decisively beating her German opponent Sabine Lisicki, Bartoli retorted: “I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”

(MORE: A Brit at Last: How Andy Murray Captured Wimbledon)

If British women felt a little raw about that incident, they set aside such feelings a day later to celebrate Murray’s glory. Moments of national unity have been in shorter supply this year than sunshine. Like most British summers, this one quickly clouded. As Murray basked in the realization of a lifetime’s dream achieved, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, used his perch in Wimbledon’s royal box, just behind British Prime Minister David Cameron, to unfurl a saltire, Scotland’s national flag and a symbol of the campaign for Scottish independence. Salmond hopes to persuade his fellow Scots to use a referendum in September 2014 to exit the U.K., arguing that England, Wales and Northern Ireland have no right to Scottish resources such as North Sea oil. Murray—who beat the Swiss favorite Roger Federer to win tennis gold at the 2012 Olympics last August and the following month snatched the U.S. Open from Djokovic—is evidently another resource Scottish nationalists are reluctant to share with their neighbors.

Murray could be forgiven if he also felt disinclined to share his glory with the whole of the U.K.. Before his early promise solidified into championship form, London-based journalists often characterized the shy, sometimes monosyllabic and always driven player as dour and graceless. He was Scottish when he lost, the joke went, and British when he won. But it was actually Murray’s defeat, in the Wimbledon finals last year, that transformed him from part-time Briton to all-U.K. hero. No viewer remained unmoved by his tearful, funny, generous interview on court after the match. “Everybody always talks about the pressure of playing at Wimbledon, how tough it is,” he said, eyes brimming, “but it’s not the people watching. They make it so much easier to play. The support’s been incredible.”

As a loser, he was compelling. As a champion, he is extraordinary, a boy who survived a 1996 mass shooting at his school in Dunblane that killed 16 of his classmates and a teacher, and then overcame a series of lesser demons—not least Britain’s ingrained expectation of losing—to reach the pinnacle of sporting achievement. That’s why most of his compatriots, in Scotland and the wider U.K., are ignoring crashing sexism and crass attempts to make political hay and remaining united in celebration.

There hasn’t been this much to gladden British souls since the golden glow of the London Olympics. Feeding into Murraymania and amplifying the excitement is the success, on July 6, of the British and Irish Lions, a rugby squad selected from U.K. national teams and also the Irish Republic, who thrashed their Australian rivals for the first time in 16 years. There’s even been some encouraging news on the U.K. economy, while the arrival of one royal baby, William and Kate’s first, expected pretty much any time now, is set to be greeted with jubilation in some quarters, not least by the retailers anticipating a baby-powered mini-boom. The palace has just announced another impending royal: Olympic equestrian Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne and married to rugby player Mike Tindall, is due to give birth in the new year. All this, and the sun is still shining too—on all parts of the United Kingdom.

MORE: Andy Murray Takes the U.S. Open: Another Sporting Win for Great Britain