A Neighbor's Journey Completed

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Katie Gater begins her senior season of college tennis as the Rice Owls open their fall tournament schedule by competing in the Midland Invitational in Midland, Texas this weekend.

She does so as the captain of a Rice team that made history in her first year with the program, winning its first NCAA matches and reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time in history.

5937054.jpeg  Any emotions she might be experiencing as her senior season is about to begin pale in comparison to the emotions she felt on Monday as she watched a neighbor from home complete a remarkable journey.

It was a journey fraught with challenges that would have crumbled a lesser individual.  An individual pursuit burdened with expectations of immeasurable proportion used as the standard as a nation eagerly watched each new chapter unfold.  

The senior from Dunblane, Scotland, will take the court in Midland on Friday with a residual sense of pride and relief knowing that her neighbor from her hometown, Andy Murray,  had outlasted Novak Djokovik in an epic five-set match to win the U.S. Open.  After several gut wrenching close calls, Murray had given Great Britain its first men's Grand Slam tennis title since the 1930's.   

Gater could not help but shed tears of joy as Murray rallied to win the fifth and final set after Djokovic had won two straight to tie the match.  She had followed Murray's career through the struggles and drama with special interest, because the two had been neighbors since Gater's parents moved to Dunblane when she was three years old.

Gater had been born in Rochester, New York, but her childhood memories are almost exclusively of the small town in Scotland, where she grew up two doors down from Murray's house.  A town of less than 10,000, located midway between Perth and Glasgow, Gater's parents found it to be the perfect location to settle after returning home to Scotland after working in the U.S. for several years.

Little did they know when moving into their new home that they were settling two doors down from a tennis-playing family, featuring two sons coached by their mother. 

Judy Murray has been a competitive player in her youth and had turned her attention to coaching her two sons, Jamie and Andy along with other talented youngsters.  

"She was the Scottish Junior Coach and was the one who would take teams to tournaments in Europe," Gater recalled. "We lived a street away from the local tennis courts and I would go there with my Dad.  She came by the courts often and saw me hitting one day and invited me to try out for the Scottish team."

With its central location, Dunblane was an ideal training center for the junior team and it meant that Gater could develop her talents without dealing with lengthy travel challenges.

Andy Murray was already establishing himself as a promising international player, but when he was home, he sometimes drew the duty of occupying the attention of Gater and her young teammates while Judy Murray was attempting to talk to the team's parents.

"Judy would tell Andy to go hit with us so she could talk to the parents without interruptions.  It was probably only a handful of times, but it's fun to remember it now," Gater said.

Judy Murray would go on to coach Gater from age 8 to 14 before she turned all her attention to supporting Andy's rapid advancement.  But Gater was hooked on tennis, and Judy Murray's initial offer to join the junior team had set in motion Gater's own journey that would eventually lead her to Rice.

As Gater progressed through the junior ranks, she could marvel at the advancement Andy was making as well.  He won the Junior U.S. Open, stoking the fires of the rabid British tennis fanbase who were yearning for a champion to call their own.   He was soon anointed by the British press as the one who would end the long dry spell in men's Grand Slam events.  

Sports history is filled with cautionary tales regarding young talents who were identified as the next big thing at far too young an age only to wither under the pressure and never meet the expectations of others.  But the hopes of a nation to win tennis tournaments was seemingly trivial compared to those of his hometown, who saw in Murray a chance to cleanse a scar that was not of their doing.

In 1996, a gunman entered the Dunblane Primary school and killed 16 students and one adult before killing himself.  Andy Murray was eight at the time and was locked down with his classmates while police searched for the gunman. Gater, who was four and one year younger than the victims, was not yet attending school.  It remains an association the town and its citizens continue to work tirelessly to erase and are reluctant to discuss. 

"Because I was so young, it's been something that people bring up to me rather than something I talk about.  It's not something anyone from Dunblane likes to talk about," Gater stated.

As a burgeoning tennis star, Murray was seen by some as the perfect counter to the horror of that day.  It was not a role he sought, nor was it a subject he spoke of, but the association remained.  

As Judy Murray's new pupil, Gater eagerly followed her neighbor's rise up the tennis rankings, barely able to imagine what the weight of those combined expectations felt like each time he took the court.

She earned a scholarship to Virginia, where she played for two seasons.  In the fall of 2011, she transferred to Rice, a move that helped spark a memorable year on the court for the Owls.   After the season, she began a summer internship, just in time to see her neighbor seemingly poised to deliver on all the hopes and dreams of his countrymen by winning tennis most hallowed event, the singles title at Wimbledon. 

Murray became the first native son to reach the final since 1938 and won the first set from Roger Federer.  But the legendary Swiss player was chasing history of his own and rallied to win his seventh Wimbledon crown, matching Pete Sampras' record.  

In the aftermath, as the awards to the winner and runner-up were presented, the crowds that packed the grounds of the All England Tennis Club in the hopes of unleashing a celebration unlike anything seen at the prestigious venue instead were struggling to come to grips with the result.

When Murray took the microphone to address the throngs, he struggled to maintain his renowned composure. The pain he felt proved too great to contain, and a nation saw its tennis prodigy in a new light as the emotion of the moment overcame him.  There was hardly a dry eye amongst those who were there in person and those watching around the world.  

"I cried when he was speaking," Gater said. "He's never emotional but to listen to him struggle to speak and to see all the people with him crying, it was very difficult to see."

Thankfully, Murray fans around the world would not have to wait long to see him stand in victory on Wimbledon's legendary grass courts.

One month later, Murray and Federer were back at Centre Court, but this time, the prize was an Olympic Gold Medal.  Aided by the emotion of a country that was inspiring heroic efforts by the home team in venues throughout London, Murray made sure there was no comeback by Federer this time.  As a country rose to celebrate his moment, Andy Murray could finally deliver the winner's speech at Wimbledon.

In Dunblane, a grateful populace painted a post office box gold in his honor after his Olympic triumph.  No word yet what kind of commemoration a US Open title will merit.

10060562.jpgAs Gater watched him rally against Djokovic  this week, ending 75 years of waiting for British fans, she happily shed a few more tears of joy for her neighbor and for all his victory represented.

 "What Andy has done with his tennis has put Dunblane in good light," Gater said.

She holds no such weighty aspirations to her own upcoming season.  

Just a chance to return to the courts with her Rice teammates, looking to build upon their 2012 success, playing the game the mother of her neighbor helped her master on her home courts in Dunblane.  

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