Sunday, October 20, 2019

Andy Murray gave his all, which is why this ending to his career hurts

  • >> Christopher Clarey, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-01-12 11:43:49 BdST

Andy Murray is not the youngest of the tennis super group known as the Big Four. Novak Djokovic was born a week later than Murray was.

But it is still quite an unpleasant surprise to realise that Murray, 31, very likely will be the first of the remarkable quartet to retire.

Roger Federer is somehow still gliding at 37. Rafael Nadal is somehow still persevering at 32.

But Murray has been in too much pain for too long with no relief in view, and on Friday in Melbourne, Australia, all of those who have followed his career from up close or a great distance, could share some of his pain, too.

It was not what he said. It was what he couldn’t say.

Andy Murray celebrates winning his first round match at the US Open in New York, Aug 27, 2018. Still struggling with a hip injury that has limited him since 2016, Murray announced before the start of the 2019 Australian Open that he will retire after this year’s Wimbledon tournament — if not sooner. The New York Times

Andy Murray celebrates winning his first round match at the US Open in New York, Aug 27, 2018. Still struggling with a hip injury that has limited him since 2016, Murray announced before the start of the 2019 Australian Open that he will retire after this year’s Wimbledon tournament — if not sooner. The New York Times

Murray, like all tennis stars of his stature, has spent as much time in news conferences as most of us have spent at the coffee shop. They are an artificial construct that has become a natural habitat for Murray, a droll, strong-minded Scotsman with the voice that sounds like a low-flying drone — a voice he once called “my least favourite thing about me.”

But as he sat down behind the table in Melbourne on Friday, his cap pulled low and lips pursed, reporters placed digital recorders on the table in front of him to capture the words. There was soon nothing to capture.

Asked how he and his ailing hip were feeling, he answered, “Yeah, not, not great.”

He then sighed, averted his glance, dropped his chin, touched the bill of his cap and his face, fought for composure and was unable to utter another word for nearly a minute before finally grabbing his credential off the desk and leaving the room.

Though he soon returned, nothing he explained then was nearly as eloquent as those 45 seconds of silence.

Andy Murray, of the United Kingdom, kisses the US Open championship trophy after defeating Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, in the men's singles final of the US Open tennis tournament at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, Sept 10, 2012. The New York Times

Andy Murray, of the United Kingdom, kisses the US Open championship trophy after defeating Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, in the men's singles final of the US Open tennis tournament at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, Sept 10, 2012. The New York Times

What mattered most was all in there: the sensitivity, the humanity, the competitive fire reduced to anguish at not being able to solve his hip problem despite all the medical expertise, financial resources and iron will at his disposal.

Murray plans to play on, hopefully until Wimbledon this summer, although there are no guarantees. He acknowledged that this Australian Open, which begins Monday, could be the finish line, and surely the poignancy of making such an announcement in Melbourne was not lost on him.

Sir Andrew Barron Murray has had many triumphs in his 31 years: back-to-back Olympic gold medals and three Grand Slam titles, none more resonant than his winning Wimbledon in 2013 to end a 77-year drought for British men in singles. Many other worthies, including Bunny Austin and Tim Henman, had embarked on the same quest and faltered.

But Australia is where Murray has had to face his own tennis limitations.

He broke down in tears during the awards ceremony after losing the final to Federer in 2010, but though he has, in his own words “kept it together” since then in Melbourne, 2010 was only the beginning of the disappointment. He lost the final again in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

No other man has gone 0-5 in singles finals at the same major tournament, and he shares the blame with Djokovic, his one-time doubles partner, who has beaten Murray in the last four of those finals.

Britain's Andy Murray during second round play at the US Open in New York, Aug 29, 2018. The New York Times

Britain's Andy Murray during second round play at the US Open in New York, Aug 29, 2018. The New York Times

So close in age and skill sets, they first played as 13-year-olds at Les Petits As junior tournament in France. Murray won in a hurry, but they have played 36 times as professionals, more than enough to make it clear that Djokovic is the greater player.

He leads their series by 25-11 and has 14 Grand Slam singles titles (and counting). For many, the Big Four has become the Big Three. And doesn’t Stan Wawrinka have — like Murray — three major titles of his own?

Such arguments have merit: Federer and Nadal also have winning records against Murray, and there is no doubt now that in the final analysis of this golden tennis era Federer, Nadal and Djokovic will be the central figures and statistical leaders.

But Murray earned his place in tennis’ great modern foursome: with his week-to-week consistency, his resilience, his all-surface brilliance and his ability to excel at Wimbledon with the equivalent of the Centre Court roof on his shoulders.

 “Never motivated by money, only by his rivals; he didn’t need people’s respect, but he earned it,” Mark Petchey, Murray’s former coach, said in the wake of Murray’s announcement.

Murray might not have been here at all: he and his older brother, Jamie, were young students at Dunblane Primary School in their Scottish town in 1996 when a local resident entered the grounds and murdered 16 of their schoolmates and a teacher before shooting himself.

The Murray brothers survived, though not without invisible scars, and they both grew up to become No. 1 in the world: Andy in singles, Jamie in doubles.

Andy Murray plays a first round match at the US Open in New York, Aug 27, 2018. The New York Times

Andy Murray plays a first round match at the US Open in New York, Aug 27, 2018. The New York Times

That is a tribute to their childhood sibling rivalry, their talent and their work ethic, and also to their formidable tennis mother, Judy, a former Scottish professional player who has been a driving force with her intuition, ambition, sharp wit and informed passion for the game.

Jamie, 32 and still in the top 10 in doubles, plans to play beyond 2019. Andy, at this stage, does not.

 “He was a kaleidoscope of talent, of emotion, of movement, spirit and authenticity,” said Petchey, a former British player who introduced Murray to Kim Sears, who would become Murray’s wife. “He was a winner, but he became a champion. A champion not just on the court but a champion of causes off it. He leaves as he arrived. Tennis never changed him, but he changed tennis.”

Murray, in part (but only in part) because of his mother’s impact on his career, has been the rare men’s No 1 to speak out frequently in support of gender equality and women’s tennis, whose results he actually seems to follow. He has also walked the walk, hiring a woman as a coach: Amélie Mauresmo.

That has endeared him to a wider audience and only underscored the gulf between on-court Murray and off-court Murray. Under pressure and between the lines, he has often been far from endearing: barking at his entourage, using language better suited to the Glasgow docks, and muttering, muttering, muttering as he chased perfection in a sport that refused to cooperate.

Andy Murray staggers during his 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Fernando Verdasco at the US Open, in New York, Aug 29, 2018. Murray, tormented by a hip injury that may end his career, enters the Australian Open with a 0-5 record in finals appearances there. The New York Times

Andy Murray staggers during his 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Fernando Verdasco at the US Open, in New York, Aug 29, 2018. Murray, tormented by a hip injury that may end his career, enters the Australian Open with a 0-5 record in finals appearances there. The New York Times

Watching him at work, it all has often seemed more a burden than a pleasure. His service motion resembles heavy lifting, and long before his hip problems became career threatening, his walk between points looked closer to a hobble.

But that was before he sensed an opportunity and sprung into action: a short ball he could pounce on for a winner, a wide ball he could chase down that hardly anyone else in the game could have reached.

Murray in his prime was above all a supreme athlete: possessed of quickness, coordination, feathery touch and selective striking power.

As recently as 2016, he had his finest season, winning nine titles and reaching No. 1 for the first time. It still seems premature to believe that he is just about done.

After all, retirement in tennis has long been a euphemism for a sabbatical, and one of Murray’s peers who has dealt with pain offered words of encouragement Friday.

 “Please don’t stop trying,” Juan Martín del Potro wrote on Twitter. “Keep fighting. I can imagine your pain and sadness. I hope you can overcome this. You deserve to retire on your own terms, whenever that happens.”

Del Potro speaks from experience; multiple wrist surgeries nearly snuffed out his career. His is a voice to be heeded. But unfortunately so is Murray’s, especially when the emotions are so powerful that the words just won’t come.

© 2019 New York Times News Service