Is this final game, set and match for wholehearted Andy Murray?

Sideline Cut: Injury-enforced retirement imminent for Scot who gave all he had to tennis

Andy Murray may retire after the Australian Open, with the severe pain from his troublesome right hip having become almost unbearable for him to play on, the former world number one said on Friday (January 11).

 

If the Brits don’t yet fully understand that their world will be irredeemably changed in the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit, then how will they react when they turn on Wimbledon during the tawny days of next July only to discover that Andy Murray isn’t there to love – and hate – anymore?

On Friday, the man who is arguably Britain’s greatest and certainly its palest ever sportsman announced that he was, in Scottish parlance, pooched. His hip, gippy to begin with, has now reached the stage where the poor man can barely tie his shoe laces without wincing.

Try facing a Djokovic first serve in that kind of nick. Because it was Murray, the press conference at which he announced that retirement was imminent – possibly after the Australian Open next week – was at once characteristically monotone and unbearably emotional.

In his decade of mooching about at the elite end of men’s professional tennis during a golden era for the sport, Murray has been prone to moments like this, speaking in professional sport auto-drone one second only to collapse into no-warning fits of tears the next. It’s been one of the reasons why Murray has always been such a conundrum for sports fans. He fits no easy category.

Until Murray, nobody had ever even thought of a Scotsman as tennis player, let alone seen one. No athlete has won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year more than Murray, confirming the affection in which he has held throughout Albion.

But on each of the three occasions he was presented with the Beeb’s prestige award, he has been savaged for transmitting no personality whatsoever.

“It’s just that my voice is really boring,” he said, stressing his excitement when accepting his first award in a memorably awkward satellite presentation.

“He’s not even miserable,” fellow Scot Frankie Boyle noted in one of his occasional swipes at the tennis star. “That’s just what a Scottish guy looks like when he’s never allowed to eat chips.”

Anguish – near or actual – has always been a core element of Murray’s on-court demeanour. He plays professional tennis as though it was a form of torture through which he has no choice but to subject himself.

Even in his Grand Slam moments, Murray was too locked into the battle between mental strength and physical limitations and the gilded opponent across the net to ever, ever be enjoying himself.

Thousand tales

If his tone of voice was muted, then his face always told a thousand tales revolving around his prevailing emotions of frustration, defiance, courage, relief and, first and foremost, a sense that he hadn’t the first clue how the next shot or point or game would go, which made watching him a hugely draining and involving process for his fans.

It was both his privilege and misfortune to peak in the age of Federer and Nadal and Djokovic, all three of whom radiate a godly invincibility in their best days.

When Federer is in full flow, it’s hard to imagine him doing anything but playing tennis, gliding around the court with impossible grace, looking expensive and sleek and born simply to elevate the game into a unique performance art.

Murray looked like what he is: a hugely decent and emotional Scottish lad who somehow became brilliant at tennis through pure heart and perseverance. It’s fitting that one of his most famous sequences is the Wimbledon semi-final second set game against Federer in 2015.

Andy Murray celebrates victory at Wimbldon in 2016. In the era of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, the Scot still managed to claim Wimbldon glory twice. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters
Andy Murray celebrates victory at Wimbldon in 2016. In the era of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, the Scot still managed to claim Wimbldon glory twice. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters

Murray trails one set to love and is serving to stay in the second: almost inevitably he quickly falls into a love-40 hole. This is the quintessence of Wimbledon: the glamorous crowd, the sun shining and always the threat of something sinister about to happen to ‘the plucky Briton playing his heart out’ before the partisan crowd.

Murray claws his way back into it and for a full 15 minutes he is caught in this riveting stalemate when he can neither put the Swiss away with his own serve nor agree to relinquish it.

He is less playing tennis than staving off disaster, pumping his fist, ranting at the sky, living on the edge of his nerves while across the court, Federer just plays away, patient, light and unnervingly serene. Even Federer fans at that moment must have felt a sense of relief when Murray finally ended the game with an ace because had all of that emotional and physical investment ended in defeat, the moment would have become uncomfortable.

As it transpired, Federer had the set won within 10 minutes of that show of defiance and claimed the semi-final in straight sets.

Since 2003, Wimbledon has been dominated by Federer, who has won eight championships and played a further three finals. Novak Djokovic has won four in an extraordinarily busy rivalry, yet somehow Murray willed himself into that company and those record books, becoming Wimbledon champion in 2013 and 2016, the first Brit to do so since Fred Perry in 1936.

Looming presence

And Murray will always be a looming presence in British sport – a Knight of the realm, a gold medallist at the London and Rio Olympics, a figure of fun in Comic Relief – but he is Scottish to the core.

It’s always been the best part of his story; that he somehow emerged from the fringes of the Trossachs and blithely ignored the absence of tennis culture as he worked demonically to improve himself until he could live with – and occasionally beat – the very best who have ever played the game.

Murray was 14 when, in a budding friendship with Rafael Nadal, he discovered what the Spaniard’s day-to-day life looked. Straight away, he was on the phone to his mum, railing that Nadal trained with Carlos Moyet, that he didn’t even go to ordinary school.

“And what do I have to do? I have to play at the university with you and my brother!” With that, he took himself out of Scotland and to Spain to have a proper go.

There has always been something cosmically balanced about the fact that Murray is from Dunblane; that he was a pupil at the local national school on the day of a shooting massacre that killed 16 children in 1996 and caused international shock.

On the few occasions Murray has spoken of that tragedy, he has found it plainly distressing and difficult to articulate the depth of pain that people from the town experienced in the years and decades since. Murray’s brilliance at tennis and his peak moments at Wimbledon have reflected something joyful and shining back on his home town.

All of that must have been playing on his mind on Friday as he acknowledged that, at 31 and nowhere near ready to retire from the game, it seems as if his body has had enough of the toil and the fight-backs and his uncommon capacity for playing through pain.

He offered a vain hope that he might somehow stumble through until next July so that he could appear at SW19 for one last time, even if it means a first round exit in a straight-sets defeat.

“That’s where I would like to stop playing,” he said.

It sounded like a forlorn wish. But if Murray does somehow keep going, he’ll receive a louder welcome any Scotsman ever has in England.

And because it’s a dream that promises nothing but hard work and fortitude and pain – the food and drink of Andy Murray – you have to fancy that he’ll get there too.

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