Nothing grabs our attention quite like a display of raw, naked emotion. We want our celebrities to be expressive; we crave for them to spell out exactly how they are feeling. Wearing your heart on your sleeve is often dismissed as a trait unbecoming of champions, but we still wait with bated breath for the next rant, the next shedding of tears from our superstar athletes.
Andy Murray was more than just expressive in his press conference earlier in the day where he announced that the 2019 Australian Open could be his last tournament. He was morose, tearful, and plain broken; he didn’t seem like he had any will left to live.
Is that what getting close to the end of your career does to an athlete? We’ve seen several tearful goodbyes in the past, but this wasn’t even a real goodbye; if things go well, Murray could still play for a few months more. It was just that the pain made it considerably more difficult for him — the physical pain that he’s been living through ever since his return from hip surgery, and the mental pain of finally admitting that he may never play top-flight tennis again.
If there’s one place that has grown accustomed to seeing top-flight tennis from Murray, it is Melbourne, so it probably makes sense that the announcement came here. The Scot has famously reached the Australian Open final as many as five times, without ever lifting the trophy. That he will likely end his career without winning the tournament where he has arguably played his best tennis is cruel, but also emblematic of his place in the Big 4 era.
In the 2010 final, Murray ran into a red-lining Roger Federer but still managed to produce one of the all-time great tiebreaks in the third set. In both 2013 and 2015, he looked capable of knocking Novak Djokovic off his high-flying perch, but was eventually worn down by the relentless pressure exerted by the Serb. In 2016, he was constantly worried about the impending birth of his first child, but somehow managed to reach the final amid all the anxiety.
It has been the story of Murray’s life, really. He was always good enough to beat everyone in his path except his fellow members of the Big 4.
But that’s not the only thing we’ll remember about his Melbourne exploits. We’ll remember too, the way he nonchalantly defused the power of every big hitter he came across; the way he turned defence into an art form, his consistency, and his masterful changes of pace. And those lobs. Those wonderful, wonderful lobs.
Has any player ever looked more content with himself than Murray did after executing one of his patented dropshot-lob combinations? Martina Hingis comes to mind, but she looked smug about herself pretty much all the time. Not Murray; for the most part, he looked like a tortured soul, screaming in anguish or scowling at his team. But after a lob winner, he would narrow his eyes a little, cock his mouth into a half-smile, and return to the baseline looking like someone who did have the capacity to be happy, after all.
Murray’s 2010 quarter-final match against Rafael Nadal was as spectacular a display of intelligent defence as any you will ever see. While Nadal had to eventually retire hurt with an injury, for 2.5 sets, he and Murray pushed each other to every corner of the court, while employing very different methods to get the proverbial extra ball back in play.
Nadal used his explosive movement and raw muscle strength to extend points, while Murray used his anticipation and quiet little re-directions to slyly maneuver them his way. The result was three hours of intense, gut-wrenching tennis, which nobody other than those two could have produced. It was cruel that the match didn’t go the distance, and crueler still that Murray and Nadal never faced each other in Melbourne again.
Murray’s 2013 Australian Open semi-final win over Federer is the only time he has defeated the Swiss great at a Slam, and that result was the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of information-gathering. Murray had given Federer trouble right from the start of their rivalry, countering the Swiss’ variety with some deft little tricks of his own. But for some reason, he had never managed to get the job done at a Major, and even in 2013, he almost let the match slip from his grasp.
Despite looking in control for the most part, he was stretched to five sets. And as he lost the fourth set tiebreaker to give Federer a lifeline, he let fly a series of curses at himself and his box.
Call it the Murray Template, if you will. At the first sign of trouble, he would start sulking, and would continue muttering to himself until match point had been won (or lost). It was one of the things that made him less of a fan favorite than the other members of the Big 4; deriding Crybaby Andy for failing to keep his emotions in check was always an easy thing to do.
But would we really have it any other way? Without his naked shows of emotion, Murray would have been just another tennis player who was darn good at his job. To me, his outbursts (which were never disrespectful or abusive, I should add) made him more relatable; they told me just how difficult it was for him to play high-class tennis day in, day out.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just playing tennis that was difficult for Murray. He revealed in his press conference that his hip pain had become so severe it was tough to even put on socks and shoes on a daily basis.
The pain had been with him for years, but it got to an excruciating level during his marathon match against Stan Wawrinka at the 2017 French Open (which necessitated the surgery), and has remained consistently high ever since.
All this while, we had been bemoaning the fact that his comeback hadn’t gone as swimmingly as that of Federer’s or Djokovic’s. But we had forgotten to consider the possibility that maybe there was something different, something unimaginably tougher, about Murray’s attempt at returning to normalcy.
It was the pain. The almost unbearable pain.
Murray will take on Roberto Bautista Agut in his first-round match next week, and a majority of the tennis world would be rooting for the Scot just so that his last expedition in Melbourne stretches a little bit longer. While that would be unfair on Bautista Agut, it is unlikely to alter the result; the solid Spaniard is coming off a title run in Doha, and would’ve been a tough out even if Murray was fully fit.
We may never fully understand the pain that Murray has been living through all these years, but we sure as hell can revel in his attempt to fight one last time. It will not be pleasant, and might not even showcase very good tennis, but it will be a fitting way to mark what he has meant to the sport.
Born in the toughest era in tennis history, Murray’s destiny was never to win everything, or even to smile gracefully as he toiled away in futility. It was to show us just how hard his job was, and just how much he cared — to the extent that he was willing to torture himself day after day after day.
We don’t realise it now, but that’s likely going to be a happy memory for us some years down the line. We will look back at Murray’s career — especially his dogged attempts at glory in Melbourne — and remember fondly how he never seemed to be afraid of anything. He wasn’t afraid of staring down the superhuman excellence of his peers, nor of putting his body through the wringer, and certainly not of baring his emotions before the world.
The last bit, in particular, is what I’m thankful for, because I’m unsure if we’ll see a genuinely, forthrightly, and a refreshingly vulnerable champion like Murray ever again.
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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2019 15:55:18 IST