Andy Murray’s SPOTY absence shows what really matters

Andy Murray’s Sports Personality of the Year award may not rank as one of his greatest achievements, but it is certainly some turnaround for Britain’s greatest male tennis player in the Open Era.

Serious, dedicated and incredibly professional, Murray initially failed to capture the hearts and minds of the English public, which makes up the vast majority of voters for the BBC’s sporting popularity gong.

A significant proportion of English fans bought a tabloid misrepresentation of Murray's light-hearted joke about England and Scotland’s footballing rivalry, taking as gospel an offhand comment about supporting England’s opponents at the 2006 World Cup, a comment that was in response to a journalist’s provocative barb about the Tartan Army’s chances of victory (Scotland had not qualified).

While the young Murray had greater concerns in work and life, he clearly closed up to the press following that incident, with his resultant guarded conduct leading those not offended by his football joke to dismiss him as grumpy, miserable, arrogant and whatever other pejorative term sprung to mind.

Talk about a Catch 22 situation: you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Murray’s reaction back then was arguably a function of his age and inexperience – in an ideal world he would have not made the joke, knowing how the famous sense of irony Britain claims to possess takes a national bypass when football is concerned. And even after the fact, he probably should have continued to speak openly. The furore would have died down once the public got to grips with his wry, sardonic sense of humour. Now, he is comfortable showcasing this, mocking his 'boring' speaking voice as he was videoed in from Miami.

How that public perception has changed. A huge factor in his newish popularity was the post-Wimbledon breakdown in 2012; after an agonising defeat to Roger Federer in the final, Murray shed tears in an emotional on-court press conference.

The vulnerability acted as a touching juxtaposition to the machismo and belligerence associated with professional athletes, and to Murray’s own gloomy media image. Murray’s popularity soared, and continued to do so after his Olympic triumph in front of a buoyant London crowd.

The British public loves a sporting crier, and it also loves a fighter – a surprisingly large contingent of which were previously unaware of Murray’s status as a survivor of the Dunblane school massacre. Now everyone knows the adversity which spawned his triumph.

But more than criers and fighters, we love a winner. Ending the 76-year wait for a male British Grand Slam champion at the US Open would ordinarily have made Murray a shoo-in for the 2012 SPOTY award. But, in an Olympic year, it was always going to be tough, so Bradley Wiggins’ Tour-Games double and convincing Paul Weller impression were deemed sufficient.

Murray’s Wimbledon triumph this year was simply too big to ignore – he was overwhelming favourite before the voting, and rightly so. For a nation with such a fondness for tennis, the British are frankly useless at the sport, and Murray is a grand exception to a culture of over-funding and underachievement.

So, given the magnitude of his achievement and the significance of his acceptance by the wider public, it perhaps comes as a surprise that Murray should not have been present to receive his award.

Some will no doubt brand his absence as a snub. But it is testament to the man’s dedication and understanding of what is actually important in sport.

For, while his contemporaries supped champagne with the great and the good of British society, Murray was and will remain in his Miami warm-weather training camp preparing for the Australian Open, the only Grand Slam he hasn’t won that he has a realistic chance of taking (short of a major change in his game, the French Open is out of the question).

Murray has always been a dedicated professional, but the appointment of Ivan Lendl upped the ante. There was absolutely no question he would miss this jolly, particularly after back problems spoiled his season after Wimbledon. The focus is on regaining full fitness, getting accustomed to the heat and humidity he will likely face in Melbourne, and ensuring he hits the pre-Oz hardcourt swing close to 100% so he can focus on fine-tuning his hitting and match strategy.

Murray’s absence comes with an element of irony. Many English fans were suspicious of his reclusive behaviour and so-called lack of personality; this public seems oblivious to the wider problem impacting some British sportspeople – our celebrity culture breeds complacency, bad habits and a misplaced confidence that often sees athletes fall flat on the biggest stages.

These awards – and particularly something as vague as rewarding the sportsperson with the greatest personality – ultimately mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.

If anything they foster a culture where minor success and even failure can be rewarded simply because the protagonist has a nice haircut or an amusing manner. How does one compare a golfer to a jockey to a tennis player to a footballer? The parameters are completely different and the public’s view can be swung by irrational intangibles. One newspaper listed Dimitar Berbatov as a nominee for a SPOTY award a few years back, even though he is neither British nor one of the best in his field.

Spare a thought for Mo Farah, forced out of the top three last year despite claiming a historic distance double, and somehow pushed out of the top three again, despite adding a convincing double World Championship swoop to his Olympic medals.

The cheery, engaging Farah appears to be widely liked by the British public, but last year the excuse was that his timing did not match his fleet of foot on the track. This time out, with a Welsh rugby player and Irish jockey rounding out the podium, you have to wonder how Britons really feel about the man and his sport. Not that he'll care though - he was also absent, training in the US as he continues his pursuit of excellence.

Had Murray not been in a race against time to achieve form and fitness ahead of a winter Grand Slam, he would have still been well within his rights to stay in Miami and focus on his job.

Topping a barometer of public opinion is nice but, in sport, achievements are everything and perception irrelevant.

Murray will be acutely aware of that and, while he accepted his award with grace, there is little doubt that any celebratory emotion will be expended in the gym.

Reda Maher - On Twitter @Reda_Eurosport