When Andy Murray dismissed Novak Djokovic, with the Serb admittedly injured, to win the 2016 ATP Finals and claim the year-end #1 ranking, it looked as though he might be about to finally dominate the sport. He had, after all, been almost unplayable that autumn, winning titles in Shanghai, Vienna and Paris as well as London, having also claimed his second Wimbledon title that July. And perhaps most importantly, his great rivals were nowhere to be seen.
Djokovic, battling a troublesome elbow injury, was playing, but appeared to be a shadow of the man who had completed the unprecedented ‘Nole Slam’ by winning the French Open just five months earlier. Roger Federer had missed almost the entire season with first a knee injury, which required surgery, and then a recurrence of the back problems that had plagued him since 2013. Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, was lurching from injury to injury, with his ultra-physical style of play seemingly placing demands on his body that it could no longer meet.
But all three men have won Grand Slam titles since that day and currently occupy the top three places in the rankings. Their dominant grip on the sport may not be unchallenged, with Dominic Thiem proving an increasingly troublesome threat and Federer set for a spell on the sidelines after a corrective surgery on his knee, but they are still the very best men’s tennis has to offer. It is their three-way rivalry that has been the defining factor of this sport over the past decade and a half.
Murray, however, missed out on the chance to embellish his legacy. His place in the Hall of Fame is already assured as a three-time Major champion and two-time Olympic Gold Medallist. He has also earned the rare distinction of a knighthood whilst still an active player. But one cannot help but feel that 2017 was his chance to finally achieve some sort of parity with Djokovic, Federer and Nadal by dominating a whole season.
Instead, his hip broke down and there are few, if any, injuries more difficult for a tennis player to overcome. It was, for example, hip problems that spelled the end of Lleyton Hewitt’s time as a force of the top of the game, even if the gritty Australian continued to battle on for some years thereafter. Murray has found the going similarly tough. In 2017, he limped into Wimbledon, but lost in the quarterfinals and did not play again competitively for another year.
Even after his return to action on the grass in 2018, he was clearly still troubled by his hip, missing out on his goal of playing Wimbledon, with his body not up to the demands of best of five set tennis. As a result, he fell out of the world’s top 800. It was a cruel irony that Djokovic completed his glorious return from his own injury problems at that same tournament. Murray has at least played sporadically since, despite at one point thinking he would retire after the 2019 Australian Open.
That he has been able to continue playing is largely the result of the hip resurfacing operation he underwent in January of last year. Indeed, Murray recovered a sufficient range of motion to win the 46th title of his career in Antwerp, beating Stan Wawrinka in a three-set thriller in the final. But he has not played on tour since the Davis Cup Finals in November, having been suffering with a bruised pelvic bone that his seriously limited his ability to train, let alone play.
He now has concerns that a bone is growing into the soft tissue around his hip, which may require surgery to correct. And should he go under the knife, he will be out of action for some months, making it almost certain that he will miss out on both Wimbledon, where he has not played in singles since 2017, and the Olympics. That would surely be a devastating blow for Murray, who has enjoyed the greatest moments of his career at the All England Club and in London and Rio at the last two Olympic Games.
And this latest setback will only further concerns that Murray’s body has broken down in ways that are beyond repair, at least in the context of his tennis career. Of course, the former-world #1 is amongst the most tenacious players of this or any other era and he will not wish to go quietly into the night. But unfortunately, as many sportsmen and women have found out in the past, just because there is a will, does not necessarily mean that there is a way.
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