The double Olympic gold medallists sit down to discuss their desire to win, recovering from serious injury – and whether Andy has forgiven his wife Kim for that SPOTY vote…
THEIR respective sports may be poles apart, but when we brought together double Olympic champion and triple Grand Slam-winning tennis player Sir Andy Murray with dual gold medal-winning showjumper Nick Skelton, veteran of seven Olympics with 17 championship medals to his name, they discovered a wealth of common ground. Sit back and enjoy being a fly on the wall for this unique chat between two sporting legends…
NICK SKELTON: Even though I competed in showjumping for over 40 years, nothing beats the buzz of trotting into the arena; I never got tired of it because every horse and each course of fences threw up new challenges. How do you stay motivated? Do you still get the same buzz walking onto court as you did 20 years ago?
SIR ANDY MURRAY: I love playing tennis as much now as I did when I started. I think having time off with an injury really helped me to realise that. I don’t think I could do what I do with all the training and travel and the recent injuries, without getting a buzz from the game still. In terms of motivation, I’m still really driven to go out and win matches. The challenges are different now, but I’ve still got the same work ethic and desire to win. I think that’s just something within me.
NICK: Showjumping has become a big-money sport but the Olympics always remained the pinnacle for me – how does it compare in tennis and for you personally?
ANDY: In tennis, the Grand Slams are really considered the pinnacle of achievement, but winning the Olympics was a real highlight for me. It’s one of my proudest achievements – not much compares with standing on the podium having competed for your country. I also really enjoyed being part of Team GB. I’m planning to defend my medal this year in Tokyo.
You have won so many things and have so many accolades – what is your proudest achievement?
NICK: Winning individual gold in Rio was undoubtedly my proudest moment – as you say, standing on that podium when you’ve done it not only for yourself but for your country, the whole team at home and all the people that have helped you over the years meant so much. But I’ve always said that winning on home turf with the whole crowd behind you is an amazing feeling and being part of the team that won gold in London was really special, too.
Dealing with injuries
NICK: I’m pretty relaxed but I think a few pre-competition nerves are healthy – do you get nervous before a match and how do you cope with pressure? Do you have any pre-match rituals or superstitions?
ANDY: I often get nerves but I actually think that it’s a good thing, it shows you care. There was always a lot of pressure on me around Wimbledon and I used to find that difficult to deal with. I perform better when I’m under pressure so it helps me in a strange kind of way.
I don’t really have any pre-match rituals – I know a lot of athletes do. We tend to follow the same routine before a match in terms of when I eat, how I warm up, opponent analysis and so on, but there aren’t any rituals.
NICK: One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with was coping with the unbearable pain in my back in my later years and being told I would never ride again after breaking my neck in 2000. You’ve obviously been experiencing something similar with your hip and consequent surgery, how have you coped with that and your recuperation? Are you a good patient?
ANDY: It’s been a tough few years and I struggled with it mentally and physically. I was in a lot of pain for a long time and it’s hard dealing with that every day. However, the thought of competing again kept me going and having a great team around me also helped lift me up when things were really tough. I think I’m a pretty good patient and I spent hours every day rehabbing, I’m pretty meticulous with that. How did you get back on a horse after breaking your neck? Did you think about giving up?
NICK: When I had my accident I was told I would never ride again, but that wasn’t what I wanted to hear so I was determined to find someone in the medical profession who would tell me I could ride and eventually I did. When I got back on, I didn’t feel any trepidation or nervousness, it all came back naturally and all I wanted to do was to get back in the ring with Arko, a really good horse I had before my accident. He gave me the determination to carry on.
Once healed, my neck never gave me any bother – it was my back that I really suffered with in the end. I endured so much pain over the years and it wears you down and it makes you bad-tempered. Eventually I just thought that was enough for me and that was when I announced my retirement – after Rio seemed like the perfect time to go.
Much of showjumping is about training the horse, although most of us never stop learning, can you give us an insight into your training regime? Do you still train as hard now as you did in the early days?
ANDY: I have definitely modified my training regime to include more time for rest. I don’t think I used to appreciate how important it was when I was younger but I now see the value, especially for players who want to extend their careers into their thirties. I’m still training five days a week and that includes a mix of on-court time and strength and conditioning work. We are quite data driven with the training so I continually monitor my performance.
NICK: That’s really interesting – we don’t use data as such, even with the horses, whereas many racing stables weigh and monitor them constantly. But there’s definitely a lot more vet work involved now – every horse is looked over by a vet each week to check they have no issues or problems coming – it’s much easier to try to stop something before it happens. Keeping them fit and healthy is the top priority; you can’t get an unhealthy horse to perform well.
NICK: Can you describe the rivalry on court? It must feel much more personal when you’re facing up against one other player on court for several hours, whereas mine was always against several riders who you would do little more than trot past on your horse. Is there anyone you feared most or felt intimidated by?
ANDY: There wasn’t really any one person I feared coming up against. Even when you are at the top of your game, any of the players in the top 100 can knock you out of a tournament so you have to have that respect for every opponent you meet. I try not to let personal rivalries get in the way of the tennis as I think it stops you focusing on getting the job done. Do you prefer competing in individual events or as part of a team?
NICK: There are many more individual competitions than team competitions in showjumping, but over the years I’ve ridden in a lot of teams and won a lot – it’s always an honour to ride for your country. Probably the best teams I rode on were with my friends John and Michael Whitaker – we were team-mates for so long, we knew each other so well and that camaraderie adds a whole new dimension. A lot also depends on what horse you have at the time, but to achieve something big on your own does mean that bit more, I think.
The one aspect of showjumping I didn’t enjoy was the travelling, living out of a suitcase and passing through endless airports. If there was one thing you could change about your profession, what would it be?
ANDY: That’s a tough question. I found it hard as a young player growing up with so much pressure and media attention. That’s quite hard to deal with when you are trying to focus on becoming a professional. I mentor a few up-and- coming footballers and tennis players now through my management company, 77 Sports Management, and that’s one of the things I try to help them with.
Now you are retired, how do you find life outside the sport? Are you enjoying your free time or do you miss competing?
NICK: Free time? What’s that? I seem to go to more shows now than when I was riding! But I actually don’t miss competing at all. I was there, I did it and then it was time to leave. I don’t wish I was still doing it, I’m just happy about what I achieved. The sport has gone up another level, it’s super-competitive and I don’t miss the stress. But it’s interesting to watch the sport change and I’m busier than ever, helping and training, so I’m still heavily involved.
The importance of down time
NICK: I saw you attended the Cheltenham Festival recently – do you enjoy racing? Have you thought about coming to Dan Skelton Racing and buying a horse…
ANDY: [Laughs] That’s not on the list right now! I really enjoyed my day out at Cheltenham, although I didn’t win much money! It’s great to see Rachael Blackmore rising to the top of the sport. Do you think this will pave the way for more female jockeys? Why do you think it’s taken so long for a female jockey to win the Grand National?
NICK: Over the years, there have been more female jockeys coming through – times have changed and the sport has changed. My daughter-in-law Bridget Skelton is as tough as they come and she’s won at the Cheltenham Festival, but they are all tough and they put their heart and soul into it, so it was only going to be a matter of time before a female jockey won the Grand National. But sometimes horses do just run better for female jockeys.
Rachael rides for a great stable, she had a good horse in the race and she was able to come up with the goods. That will have inspired a lot of kids – how many girls now say they want to be Rachael Blackmore or Bridget or Hollie Doyle or Hayley Turner? It’s certainly not just a man’s world anymore.
What else do you do to unwind, how do you switch off between matches?
ANDY: I have four children (and two dogs) so that takes up most of my free time! I really enjoy my golf and was able to play a bit last year. I have a few business interests which also keep me busy – a five-star hotel in Scotland, Cromlix, which I bought in 2014 and I try to get up there whenever I can. Plus I’ve invested in a few brands like TRR Nutrition (collagen supplement) and Halo (hydration drinks) and my tennis clothing line, AMC. After all of that there isn’t much free time left!
NICK: I enjoyed a really lovely stay at Cromlix a while ago – and I was lucky enough to meet you there. It’s such a beautiful hotel and the food is unbelievably good, too. I’m just waiting for an invite back!
But finally, I have to ask… Have you forgiven your wife Kim for voting for me for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 2016? [Andy announced while receiving his winner’s trophy that Kim had actually voted for third-placed Nick].
ANDY: It’s taken a long time but yes, she is now forgiven!
This exclusive feature can also be read in H&H magazine, on sale Thursday 8 July 2021
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