Before writing his name in tennis folklore, Andy Murray waxed lyrical to FFT about his beloved Hibees - and how he could have been a footballer.
Andy Murray laughs. He knew the question was coming: did he really say he'd support "anyone but England" at the World Cup? "I think anybody who really knows the story of what happened knows it was all a joke," he explains. "Knowing full well they hadn't qualified, a journalist [Des Kelly of the Daily Mail] asked me if I'd be supporting Scotland in the 2006 World Cup. He started laughing, so I said: 'I'll support anyone but England.' It was just a joke, but all of a sudden it turned into some big national debate. I ended up learning quite a lot from such a small thing."
Indeed, it wasn't until 2008's Wimbledon, when Henman Hill was renamed Murray Mound in his honour, that the British public took the country's best tennis player since Fred Perry to their hearts. And it was Murray's footwork as well as his racquetwork that caught the eye, as he treated Centre Court to some keepy-uppies with a tennis ball during a break in play in his Second Round match against Belgium's Xavier Malisse.
As it turns out, the world No.3 has football in his genes. His grandfather, Roy Erskine, played a handful of games for Hibernian in the 1950s, behind the club's 'Famous Five' forward line. "My whole family support Hibs because of my grandfather," says Murray, born in Glasgow, but famously brought up in Dunblane. "By the time I was born he'd had a couple of hip replacements so I didn't get to see him play. Me and my brother [ex-Wimbledon doubles champion, Jamie] started going to Hibs games when we were 13 or 14.
"Most of my friends are Rangers or Celtic fans. There have never been such high expectations at Hibs, I guess, so at least we don't feel like we're being let down. They've always got new young players coming through, and have done relatively well, considering – we've been on some good cup runs in recent times, like winning the League Cup in 2007."
Best moment "As a Hibs fan, probably the best match I have watched them play was in 2001 against [AEK] Athens in the UEFA Cup, at home. The atmosphere was electric."
Worst moment "I wouldn't know, but there's been a lot over the years!"
All-time hero "Franck Sauzee without a doubt. He is our 'Le God'."
Dream signing "Lionel Messi is my favourite of the lot."
Would you force your kids to support Hibs? "I wouldn't make them – I'd try and edge them that way, but I wouldn't force them to."
Around the time he became an Easter Road regular, Murray attracted the interest of the Ibrox giants and admits he was tempted. "When you're 13 or 14, playing tennis is tough because it's a very individual sport and there's more pressure to perform, so football allowed me to spend time with my schoolfriends and have fun. I did go through the odd phase where I'd take football more seriously, but when it came down to making a decision to pick one over the other, I had to choose tennis because at that age I knew I was going to be top three or four in Europe, whereas in football you don't really know."
Football still plays a big part in his career – though not in the way he would like. "I've had to wear an ankle brace for the last four years when I play, as a result of a football injury," he explains. "I played for two different teams, striker for one, left-midfield for another, but I didn't have a great left foot so I had to cut inside. I had to stop playing because an opponent stood on my left ankle as I was crossing the ball."
It hasn't stopped the Scot playing though; football's been incorporated into his pre-match warm-up. Murray and his coaching staff have to control a tennis ball in each of the four service boxes, with inevitable forfeits for the loser. "If there's space we try and get some games of football going on tour with whoever fancies it – Hamburg has an indoor pitch, Indian Wells has a huge grass area – but there aren't too many takers because nobody wants to get injured. A lot of the French guys play well, the South Americans too, and Rafa Nadal is pretty good, although his uncle [Miguel Angel Nadal, known as 'The Beast'] used to play for Spain and Barcelona! Rafa's a Real Madrid fan, though – we talk about football a lot.
"I lived in Spain for four years and my coach there had a season ticket for Barça despite being a Real Madrid fan, which was weird," he continues. "He'd go to every match and sit there quietly, hating it every time they scored! I saw some great matches, like AC Milan and Celtic in the Champions League, and as an attacking player I really enjoyed watching Iniesta, Deco, Messi and Ronaldinho."
But when it comes to big rivalries, give him Hibs-Hearts over Madrid-Barça any day. "I haven't been to an Edinburgh derby, but I hear the atmosphere's amazing," he says. "Hopefully I'll get the chance one day when I move back to Scotland." If he wins Wimbledon before he retires, not even England's football fans would begrudge him that.
Interview: Robin Brooks. From the September 2009 issue of FourFourTwo.