Sonia O’Sullivan: Andy Murray shows fairytale endings are rare

Great champion knows his body is no longer capable of delivering what it once did

 Andy Murray reacts during a press conference following his first round loss to Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut at the Australian Open. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

Andy Murray reacts during a press conference following his first round loss to Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut at the Australian Open. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

 

At some point in their career every competitive athlete starts to think about the fairytale ending. Few actually make it that far.

It’s all part of the unpredictability of sport because, as the athlete’s body starts to age, and the strength starts to fail, so too goes the sense of ability and sometimes invincibility, starting from within. 

Andy Murray provided another perfect reminder of that when he walked off the packed Melbourne Park here on Monday, defeated in the first round of the Australian Open. 

Murray certainly didn’t give up without a considerable fight. There were glimmers of his greatness throughout the match, giving some hope that he just might get to play another day.

In the end he was working much too hard for the points he was winning, and eventually worn down by an inspired opponent – Roberto Bautista Agut from Spain – who saw his opportunity and made sure he took it.

It’s never easy to watch a great athlete like Murray struggle to do what once came so easily. And within, there’s always that desire to achieve just one more thing before walking away. Yet that final chapter is so often left incomplete.

Twice Olympic champion, twice Wimbledon champion, US Open winner, World Number 1 in 2016, and five-time Australian Open finalist, all these achievements were in the past as Murray faced the press here in Melbourne in the aftermath of Monday’s match. 

In the end his body simply failed him, aged just 31, and for everything he’s done the past few months to get to this point, there was no joyous result to make it all worthwhile. 

The Australian Open organisers were quick to ‘retire’ Murray for good. There was a montage of farewells from fellow players up on the big screen immediately after the game. Yet he wasn’t quite ready to accept this.

Murray knows what it will take to get back on the court again, this will no doubt fuel the doubts in his mind. But knowing the satisfaction ending on his own terms will bring may just be enough to get him go back to the drawing board and try one more time. But there will always be those doubts and questions asking how and why. And is it even worth it? 

I think it is, even just for total closure – and I know that from my own experiences. 

My perfect closure was to run at the Olympics for a fifth time, in Beijing in 2008, to finish the marathon and run into the Olympic stadium one more time knowing that was definitely it. As hard as I tried, I never got that far, couldn’t quite get there, and something that was once very achievable was suddenly out of reach, that goal let down by my body that once gave so much. 

Monumental effort

It’s never been easy to accept that just finishing the 5,000m at the Athens Olympics in 2004 would be my final Olympic lap, and that fairytale ending never quite came. 

For Murray that one final chapter would probably be to walk back on the court at Wimbledon one more time, but he also knows that to even get to the level he played on Monday in Melbourne would take a monumental effort. That’s before all those doubting thoughts; is it even possible and even if it is, is it really worth it.

The injury woes that Murray has endured and tried to overcome these past 20 months have been well documented . Even though there will have been some signs of recovery, hints at getting back to his best, it’s never easy when you have that nagging pain – and harder still to get it out of your head. 

A dejected Sonia O’Sullivan after finishing last in the Women’s 5000 metres at the 2004 Olympics. Photo: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
A dejected Sonia O’Sullivan after finishing last in the Women’s 5000 metres at the 2004 Olympics. Photo: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

You can only dull and numb that pain for so long. Doing just enough training and practice gives some hope that you might get through one more tournament, and maybe, just maybe, your ability and experience will get you the win. But even if that pain is numbed the reality comes crashing down once the game is up. 

It’s only possible to put up with so much until you have to admit the reality of an injury and are forced to stop. Competing one day, barely able to walk the next, that’s when you start to weigh things up.

For me the worst case scenario was always that I couldn’t walk around doing normal activities; walk to the local cafe, walk the dog, the simple things in life. 

It’s never easy for an athlete to ‘retire’ either. It’s just not the right word to use for a very fit athlete, still young and looking at all the years ahead. But still the question is how to fill those days and change all you’ve known up to this point in life. 

The hours and hours of training, the aches and pains and wear on the body, all seem worthwhile once you get to compete and deliver a result. The input and output create a balance that adds up, the results negating the hard work, but once that balance sways the other way those questions become more frequent.

Murray admitted that maybe he had trained too hard. Doing what he knew delivered results in the past, when this time maybe he could’ve got away with a bit less effort in training and trusted his ability.

It’s clear the mind and body are in conflict and only when it’s too late do you realise that maybe a slightly easier route might just have delivered a slightly better result, and one more chance to deliver some sense of satisfaction.

When you only know one way, that hard work delivers quality results, it’s harder to lower the work rate and still retain the confidence and belief that you’ll be able to compete at the same high level.

Work ethic

All great athletes have the ability to rise above what they do in training. Sometimes you get to ‘borrow’ a performance that seems so out of reach, only because you’ve been there before, and instinct kicks in.

As the years go on, however, do you have to pay back some interest, and most of these seemingly impossible achievements, the ability to back up and return, gets even more difficult each time.

It’s also hard to line up when you know things are not quite right. The time and effort put in is often greater when trying to overcome injury than when you are training at the highest level. Mathematically that just doesn’t add up.

This is when the mental and physical components really come in to play. You get a glimmer of hope, decide to push on, but then when really under pressure, what once came so easy is so much more difficult. Often the problem stems from an inability to see early on that you don’t have to maintain such a high work ethic: the amount and intensity needs to be adjusted, yet very few athletes actually see that.

Then you look at Roger Federer, aged 37, and the ease that he still moves around the court on this his 20th appearance at the Australian Open. Somehow he’s got that balance right down through the years, somehow kept his body intact. He may even have that final chapter planned to exit on his terms, that perfect fairytale ending, and not be left forever wondering what might have been.

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