Every sportsman and woman wants to leave the game to which they have dedicated their lives on their own terms. And tennis has provided a number of its athletes with the chance to do just that. Pete Sampras’ run to one last major title at the US Open before retirement is one example. Flavia Pennetta’s unexpected victory under the lights in New York before announcing her retirement is another. But for far too many, chronic injury forces them to go quietly into the night.
Unfortunately, Andy Murray, unquestionably one of the finest sportsmen Britain has ever produced and a leading light in this golden age of tennis, will be one of them. The hip injury for which he had surgery last January has not responded to treatment as hoped. Rather, the Scot has been left in almost constant pain on the tennis court, unable to play at anything like his best, as his 1-6 1-4 mauling at the hands of Djokovic in a recent practice match illustrates.
As is typical of Murray, he has sought to fight through the pain, and considering the severity of his hip injury, he has scored some very impressive wins since the surgery. His battling run to the Washington Open quarterfinals last summer–which saw him beat Mackenzie McDonald, Kyle Edmund, and Marius Copil–serves as proof that whilst his body may have failed him, his conviction never did. But it also showed the clear physical limitations that the injury placed on Murray as he was forced to withdraw ahead of his quarterfinal matchup with Alex De Minaur.
It is perhaps a further cruelty that Murray has been forced to watch the resplendent returns of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic from serious injury problems of their own to further Grand Slam successes. As Murray faces the end of his career, that golden trio that frustrated him on so many occasions once again occupy the top three spots in the rankings. Indeed, all three have held the #1 ranking since Rafael Nadal wrested it back from Murray in August 2017.
Always the weaker link in the big four, particularly since Djokovic elevated his level in 2011, Murray has faced relegation to the pack in the minds of some in recent years–with his achievements viewed as increasingly comparable to those of Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, rather than Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. But whilst his career numbers may pale in comparison with the Swiss, Spaniard and Serbian, he does not deserve to be cut adrift of them.
He alone posed a sustained threat to their dominance of the sport. For whilst he may have won three Majors, the same number as Wawrinka, he reached a further eight finals and also won two Olympic gold medals in singles, which neither Federer nor Djokovic have yet managed. His 14 Masters titles also separates him from the pack. And so did the sustained quality of his tennis.
On his day, Murray was virtually unplayable. His court coverage was superb, but he was not just a defensive player. He had the power to step in and dictate, with both his forehand and backhand dangerous weapons. His touch at the net was similarly impressive as illustrated by the productive doubles partnership he formed with his elder brother Jamie Murray, which was a vital cog in the British team that won the Davis Cup in 2015.
Some of his shots, such as the inch-perfect lobs of 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, the running forehand pass at the end of a lung-busting rally against Fernando Verdasco, and the literal game of cat-and-mouse he played with the wily Michael Llodra still have the power to take one’s breath away years after they first left his racquet. Those moments of magic were every bit as special as the sorceries conjured by Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.
And his tireless attitude was to be found in action on and off the court. Murray used his platform as one of the best-known sportsmen in Britain, and in tennis generally, to lobby for gender equality and other causes as best he could. Not only did he hire Amelie Mauresmo as his coach, who is now working with former French #1 Lucas Pouille, but he also repeatedly corrected reporters and others when they, all too frequently, dismissed the achievements of his female colleagues.
Tennis is a cruel and demanding sport, one in which talent alone is no guarantee of success and in which defeat must be stomached by nearly all in nearly every week of their career. There are few who have both the ability and the grit to make it anywhere near the top of the game. Fewer still manage to become the sort of transcendent icons of the sport that live long in the memory. Murray, however, is just that, and in perhaps the most competitive era the sport has ever seen.
So as devastating and unfair an end to his career as this is, it seems certain that Murray will be able to look, when the dust settles, with the utmost pride. One can only hope that it is consolation enough.
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