Judy Murray: “I find the criticism of me upsetting…”

Tennis matriarch Judy Murray talks media "rubbish", how her sons have helped Dunblane – and the significance of appearing on Strictly

There was no high school in Dunblane when I was 16 so my parents decided to send me to a private girls school in Crieff. I’ll always be grateful to them for that because the sporting opportunities there were huge and obviously sport has been a massive part of my life ever since. I played netball, hockey, swimming, badminton – my life revolved around sport. My plan was to get accepted for university then take a year off to concentrate on tennis. All through high school I thought I’d be a PE teacher. In the end I went in a different direction but my work as national coach, British Fed captain and now in grass roots coaching has kind of brought me full circle.

I think back now and think, oh, I wish I’d have been brave enough to do that

The tennis world was very different 40 years ago. There was no academy or even full-time trainers in Scotland. Only one per cent of women played tennis in Scotland. It was not a viable career. So for me then, tennis was just a hobby I got quite good at. To play in competitions I had to travel abroad myself a lot at 17 and that was tough. When I had my purse stolen from my bag in Barcelona one day – all my money, my tickets, my passport, my hotel key – I suddenly realised how alone I was. This was before ATMs or mobile phones – I had to go to the British Embassy for help. And when I got home my dad said, no, that’s enough. I hate to quit on anything but the truth is, I think I was glad he said it.

I still sometimes look back at my own life and wonder, if I’d made different choices when I was playing, if I’d been braver, how good could I have been? Probably I wasn’t good enough to make a career of it anyway but there were no opportunities in Scotland to help me find out. And I wasn’t tough or mature enough to do what I had to abroad. When I was at school I was also offered a tennis scholarship in Virginia and I didn’t go. I think back now and think, oh, I wish I’d have been brave enough to do that. It would have given me the chance to grow up, to learn so much about the sport and that kind of life.

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Due to inexperience, wanting my son to have opportunities I hadn’t taken, and being flattered by the attention of people telling me how special he was, I made a mistake sending him from home too soon. [Jamie went to train in Cambridge when he was 12.] He was young and innocent, dreaming of being a tennis player. I knew he wouldn’t get the opportunities in Scotland. But it didn’t work out the way the LTA promised and six months later we brought him home. It was too early to take a child out of a comfortable, safe, caring environment, away from friends, family, trusted coaches. It damaged his confidence and his game and caused a lot of anguish. Fortunately he came out of the other side and now he’s got his Grand Slam titles and his number one ranking last year. But I waited till Andy was 15 before I let him go away.

I haven’t been able to watch Andy or Jamie on TV for years. I find it too stressful. I can’t help, I can’t do anything. I just ask someone to text me when it’s all over. I don’t go to the matches as often as I used to either, it’s just too stressful – all the expectation and the pressure. I’d love to be able to enjoy it more. But when I’m there, no matter how hard it is, I can’t get up and leave. Even if I feel like I’m having a heart attack I can’t slide under the seat or walk out. Because, just like they did when they were little, they still look up for reassurance and encouragement.

They always use pictures of me bearing my teeth or pumping my fists, looking scary

It’s hard hearing people on the media attack Andy’s personality. You just have to keep reminding yourself the people who write articles criticising him generally haven’t ever met him. They don’t know anything about him. I reassure myself with that. I only care about the opinion of people who know us, who care about us, who love us. The rest is just words.

I’ve read an enormous amount of rubbish about me. And it is upsetting. The sporting world is full of male journalists, male photographers and male editors. Right from the start they’ve chosen to use pictures of me bearing my teeth or pumping my fists, looking scary or aggressive. So people only ever saw me in the most stressful situations, and I am very sensitive and I do show my emotions. So the media built an image of me as this angry tiger mother. I used to get angry letters at the house, written very spidery, saying I was terrible, aggressive… “awful behaviour”. People forget – I never asked for any attention. I was just a mother watching her sons play tennis. The same as I’d been since they were seven years old.

Judy Murray appears on Strictly Come Dancing

Dunblane has always been enormously supportive and proud of everything Jamie and Andy have done. The boys don’t get back very often but they still think of Dunblane as home. I think their success brought a lot of excitement and joy to the town and I think that’s helped a bit with the recovery [since the 1996 killings at the primary school Andy and Jamie attended]. It’s good to think that people round the word now think of Dunblane with happy associations, and not just as a place of tragedy.

The teenage me would be happy to see how her confidence and courage grew so much she was able to do a show like Strictly Come Dancing [above]. All glammed- and sequinned-up on national Saturday night TV! I didn’t have a lot of confidence as a teenager. I had no interest in what I looked like. I would never stand up in class or ask a question. I was very quiet, didn’t like to be looked at or singled out. I didn’t feel attractive. And even after that, I didn’t have the time or money to go and buy fashionable clothes. But in just these last five or six years I’ve had more money and more time and I’ve come to enjoy going to the spa, learning how to put on make-up, shopping for nice clothes. And that would come to a huge surprise to the younger me in her hoodie and trainers.

I think my 16-year-old self would be amazed by what her sons have achieved. The Davis Cup victories, winning Wimbledon – that would have been such a huge thing to that teenage Scottish tennis lover. Back then you were lucky if tennis got one line in the sports round-up in the Glasgow Herald or The Scotsman. It was absolutely a minority sport. Now, against a backdrop of no support for tennis anywhere in the country, this little Scottish town has produced two world champions. Sometimes we even get onto the front page…

Knowing the Score by Judy Murray is out now (Chatto & Windus, £18.99)