From calling zero love to apologizing for winning shots that clip the net, tennis is lousy with idiosyncrasies. Perhaps no ritual, though, is stranger than this: Immediately after losing a high-stakes match, players can't even leave the court before they are asked to assess their displeasure. We would never inquire of a surgeon, immediately after losing a patient, You must feel awful, Dr. Blaustein. Tell us, do you anticipate a malpractice suit? Yet after losing the 2012 Wimbledon final, Andy Murray had scarcely finished shaking hands with Roger Federer when he was ambushed by a courtside camera crew and interviewer. How did it feel to come up short, he was asked, thus depriving Great Britain of its first homegrown Grand Slam champion since the Bronze Age? (O.K., since 1936.) Murray inhaled and exhaled. His voice cracking, he told the Centre Court crowd and a worldwide TV audience, "I'm going to try this, and it's not going to be easy." Then his tear ducts overflowed, and he endured what Brits call "a spot of blubbering" before choking out the rest of his answer.
With that, Murray achieved what he had never quite managed in nearly a decade on tour: He won over the British public. We want our sporting heroes to win, of course, but short of that, we want them to care. Here was Murray providing indisputable proof (high in sodium content) that for all his monotone sound bites, sagging shoulders and I-just-ate-battery-acid facial expressions on court, he is deeply invested in what he does. Here was Murray confirming what everyone embedded in tennis knew long ago: He's one of the good guys. As John McEnroe put it, "You see how bad he wants it."
For the better part of five years Murray has been the fourth-best tennis player in the world. With Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic devouring titles like Pac-Man (one of the Big Three has won 29 of the last 30 majors), there are only scraps left for Murray. So it's hard to know what to make of the 25-year-old from Scotland. Is he an elite player or is he simply a terminal bridesmaid, born into the wrong era—"the nearly man of tennis," as The Times of London columnist Simon Barnes calls him.
"I'm getting closer," Murray suggested hopefully. And he has another chance to break through next week. The Olympic tennis tournament starts July 28 on the hastily resurfaced lawns of the All England Club, and Nadal will sit it out with knee problems. In part because the event will be held in tennis's Cathedral, players are imbuing it with a Grand Slam's prestige. For Murray this is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. If he wins the gold medal, he might as well be knighted on the spot. He'll earn a level of affection (and market appeal) to rival David Beckham's at the peak of his powers. Yet during the tournament he'll get more attention than all other players in the field—combined—which will be a huge distraction. "In the U.K., I don't think we really do that good a job with this," Murray says. "If you want your sports teams and athletes to be successful, you don't really want to be throwing them off their stride in the most important moments."
Overall it's a good life, being a top tennis pro. You travel the world; you're paid handsomely; you have the perks of a rock star. Murray, though, isn't interested in that. He desperately, unapologetically wants to ascend that last step of the staircase. His fitness level is unimpeachable, the legacy of years of off-court work. He's tweaked his game to add wattage to his serve and has become less of a defensive cutie and more of an attacker. Earlier this year he hired Ivan Lendl as his coach. The thinking: Murray won't simply listen to a decorated former champion—he'll try to please him too.
Still, Murray doesn't delude himself: He knows that if he wins a gold medal or a Grand Slam singles title, he's a hero; if he doesn't, he's another British—er, Scottish—sporting goat. "If I finish my career in tennis having never won a [major], I would probably view that as a failure, because that's what I've worked toward," he says. "But if people agree this is the best era in men's tennis and the guys in front of me are three of the best players ever—then, well, I must be pretty good."