Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 13, 2019

For Tennis Fans, This Exit Hurts

On the other side of the world the Australian Open, tennis’s first Grand Slam event of the year, is just getting under way. Over the next two weeks there will doubtless be plenty of drama on the blue-tinted Plexicushion hard courts at Melbourne Park. But for agonizing pathos nothing that happens in the coming fortnight of play will surpass the scene that took place Friday not on a tennis court but in a media room. That was where Andy Murray, the 31-year-old Scot who forced his way into the top tier of the men’s game by will as much as by skill, first challenging then eventually joining the triad of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, thus establishing the era that will forever be known as that of the Big Four, bowed to the grim reality of injury and pain by announcing his decision to retire.

Dressed in dark blue, with a matching baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, Murray took his place at the front of the room and waited through the obligatory introduction and then for a line of reporters to come forward and place their recorders on the table at which he sat. At last came the first question, “How are you feeling, and how is the hip injury?” Murray responded, “Yeah, not, not great,” and then lapsed into silence as he struggled to maintain his composure. After nearly a minute without words, he rose and left the room.

Murray returned a few minutes later and immediately apologized to the assembled scribes, though it quickly became apparent that no apology was necessary. In 2017, shortly after rising to the number one ranking and being honored at home with a knighthood, Murray began to experience chronic pain in his right hip. While the exact nature of the injury has never been publicly revealed, it gradually became apparent that the pain was great enough to make it impossible for him to play at an elite level. Early last year, after withdrawing from a tournament, he explained on social media that rest and rehabilitation were the preferred options for recovery, because surgery, while possible, had a low chance of being successful. In retrospect those words should have been a warning sign to tennis fans when just a few days later Murray announced that he had undergone hip surgery.

He has played sparingly over the past year amid ongoing efforts to rehabilitate his hip and regain the lateral motion that is essential to every tennis player. Surely to most emotionally painful moment was his decision to withdraw from Wimbledon, announced the day before the tournament began. Later he won his first round match at last summer’s U.S. Open, but lost in four sets to Spain’s Fernando Verdasco in the second round.

Friday, after returning to the media room, Murray explained in a quavering voice that the constant pain had finally become too much. “Yeah, so, not feeling good, obviously, been struggling for a long time. I’ve been in a lot of pain, for, oh it’s been probably about 20 months now. I’ve pretty much done everything that I could to try and get my hip feeling better. It hasn’t helped loads. I’m in a better place than I was six months ago, but still in a lot of pain.” Then came the words that were the hardest for Murray to say, “So my plan—kind of the middle to end of December during my training block, I spoke to my team and I told them I can’t keep doing this. I needed to have, like, an end point, because I was just sort of playing with no idea when the pain was going to stop. I felt like making that decision, I said to my team I think I can kind of get through this until Wimbledon. That is where I’d like to stop, stop playing.”

While a final appearance at the All England Club remains his hope, Murray readily acknowledged that there is no guarantee he will be able to make it that far. He conceded that it was entirely possible that the Australian Open, where he faces a challenging first round match against twenty-second seed Roberto Augut could prove to be the end of the line.

Whether Murray’s competitive career ends in the next several hours or before an adoring home crowd next June, his departure will be felt deeply by tennis fans. He was the last of the Big Four to rise to that level of prominence, and by many statistical measures the least accomplished of the quartet. But while he lost more than he won when facing the other three, and while his three Grand Slam titles are dwarfed by the fifty-one that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have claimed, Murray was always the most human of the four.

First to rise to the top, Federer was and still is the elegant artist, gliding through a match while making impossibly hard shots appear to be so much child’s play. Nadal is the aggressor, ready to take on all comers with a pugnacious style that might fit as well in a boxing ring as on a tennis court. And Djokovic may be the most complete player of them all, or at least the one with the most balanced game between offense and defense.

Murray in turn was, at his best, the ultimate counterpuncher, a player who could withstand the assault of blazing serves and blistering volleys and somehow find a way to keep a point going. Seldom the most gifted player in a tournament’s field, he was regularly the hardest worker, who would often win matches that he probably shouldn’t have by superior physical conditioning and sheer guile. Sometime churlish on the court, though mostly at himself, off it he was exceedingly generous and an outspoken advocate for pay parity between the ATP and WTA at the majors, making Murray a favorite among women players.

He defeated Djokovic in five sets at the 2012 U.S. Open to win his first Grand Slam title, and downed Milos Raonic in straight sets to win Wimbledon in 2016 on his way to becoming number one. That summer he also took the gold medal in men’s singles at the Rio Olympics, reprising his victory from four years earlier in London. He was also runner-up to Djokovic at the French Open in 2016, just as he had been at Melbourne to start that season. That finish made Murray 0-5 at the Australian Open Final, an unmatched second place record at any men’s major.

But without question Murray’s finest moment came on the grass at the All England Club in 2013. One year after losing to Federer, Murray returned to the Final at Wimbledon, this time with Djokovic on the other side of the net. With all Great Britain cheering him on, Murray produced a classic performance. After taking the first set 6-4 he faced deficits of 1-4 and 2-4 in the next two sets. Both times he rallied, winning the second set 7-5 and the third, and with it the championship, by claiming the final four games of the match. When Djokovic netted a backhand to end it, Murray became the first native of Great Britain to win the men’s title in seventy-seven years. Outside center court, the huge crowd watching the match on the massive television screen at the base of what became known as Murray’s Mound, roared their approval.

Later Murray would say that “it was tough speaking after the match.” But not as tough as Friday, when there were no words to express what it feels like to come, far too soon, to the sad end of a marvelous career.

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Responses

  1. Ending a career is the toughest part of having one. Your post is quite sensitive to that fact and a pleasure to read because of it.
    Ω


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