At a press conference on 11 January in Melbourne, Andy Murray broke down as he contemplated and then articulated an inevitable fact — that he could not continue playing competitive tennis, at least not at the level that he would have liked.
The player who ranked World No 1 in August 2017 (currently ranked 230), announced that he would aim for this year’s Wimbledon, where he has won two singles titles in the past, to be his last tournament as a tennis pro. That is, if his battered, bruised and operated-upon body could get that far — chances are the 31-year-old’s fitness may not last beyond the year’s first Grand Slam that starts on Monday.
In the future, Murray may well be remembered — by those who are not British — as a dour, serious player, lacking in charisma, who was once among the top four players in the world. His name would be associated with a men’s generation considered the best ever, where three of his contemporaries have won Grand Slam titles in the double digits.
He would be, for some time at least, UK’s best-ever tennis player and the first local in 77 years to win at Wimbledon, in 2013. For the British, Murray is more than an athlete; he is a symbol.
But Murray has been so much more than what television has allowed us to see. From surviving a shoot-out in a school in 1996 in Dunblane, Scotland, as an eight-year-old to making his presence felt in a crowded circuit that included Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. To stand out in this set requires skill, determination and passion that’s not easily apparent in his straight-faced demeanor.
Murray countered Federer’s unreal natural ability, Nadal’s muscularity and Djokovic’s elastic durability with his own strength and persistence — he pounded down everything thrown at him relentlessly, making up for what he lacked as a player with what he had as a person—an ability to conquer his shortcomings. He, as former coach Darren Cahill put it, “emptied the bucket to be as good as he could be,” and was “(with) remarkable discipline for training, competition, sacrifice, perfection, a little crazy, but a legend of a bloke”.
What finally broke the Scotsman’s resolve was the hip injury, which, despite surgery last January, would not recover to its prime — he lost 11 months to it. Even though he has been plagued with injuries through his career — from age 17 when he was diagnosed with a split patella, later a wrist injury (in 2007), back surgery (in 2013) and then the hip — his strong will helped him endure pain.
An analysis of his playing style in an article in The New Yorker some time back blamed the continuous scrambling on court and changing direction repeatedly along the baseline for taking a toll on his hips. A forehand is a high-speed collision between ball and racquet that is absorbed by the stretched hip, the article said, and repeated countless times in the course of a career. “It is beauty masking strain and attrition.”
Murray struggled to control his emotions on Friday also, perhaps, because he could not leave the sport on his terms, but was being forced to do so by his body. It’s not easy to give up something you been doing since age three, a family activity that involved single mother Judy and older brother Jamie, who also plays tennis.
Earlier this year, Murray had said that the thought of his children — two daughters, three and one-year-old — had kept him going. “One of the things that I would like to do is play until my eldest daughter is able to watch me and have a small understanding of what it is I’ve done for my living,” he then said, which is unlikely now to happen.
He puts family above all else — “I’d rather be getting up in the middle of the night and helping (my daughter),” he told The Daily Mail, “than winning every tennis match and her thinking when she grows up, ‘Actually, you know what, he was a s***ty dad, but he won a lot of tennis matches.’”
It’s a quirk of fate that Murray’s two children should be daughters. In an era where world tennis was often divided on the issue of equality — of pay and status — for women players, Murray’s was a supportive, firm and decisive voice in favour of gender rights.
In 2014, he surprised the sporting world by picking Amelie Mauresmo, a woman, as his coach and stuck to his decision despite hostility to her appointment. It spurred him even further to be an advocate for women’s game, of the right to equal treatment both in sport and wider society.
“Have I become a feminist?” he wrote in a blog in June for French newspaper L’Equipe. “Well, if being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man, then yes, I suppose I have.”
When he was congratulated after the 2016 Rio Olympic gold medal as, “the first person ever to win two Olympic gold medals (he won in 2012 as well),” he corrected the interviewer: “To defend the singles title… I think Venus and Serena (Williams) won about four each.”
While tributes from fellow players since the last three days have praised him for his fighting abilities and for being a great buddy, not surprisingly, women players have appreciated his support.
“Your voice for equality will inspire future generations,” posted Billie Jean King, while Pam Shriver believes his was, “A male leadership voice that stands out and is outstanding during a challenging time for gender issues.” British No 1 Johanna Konta wrote, “There have been so many examples of when he has stood up for us — not just for women’s tennis, but women in general...”
For fans, there would appear to be this duality to Murray. He might come across like a grouch, with tousled hair, a grimace sometimes and a grunting, mechanical style of play. He appeared like he crawled out of bed on to the tennis court and would mumble something reluctantly, sometimes even incomprehensively, on camera. But, given a chance, a dry, typically British, wit and sense of humour would shine through often.
For example, when he skipped Wimbledon last year, he wrote: “Sad to be missing Wimbledon…if anyone needs a coach over the next couple of weeks give me a buzz!”
Just last week, he posted on Instagram with the Australian Open trophy, stating: “The closest I’ll ever get to the Aussie open trophy #5timeloser”.
That pronouncement, over the next few days, turned out to be unfortunately true.
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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2019 15:36:09 IST