Game, set and match for ded­i­cated Mur­ray

Pas­sion­ate ath­lete deeply re­spected by team mem­bers and fel­low play­ers

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Keith Dug­gan:

It is a poignant odd­ity that Andy Mur­ray’s tennis ca­reer is end­ing as it be­gan: in pain, strug­gle and con­fu­sion. When the thin, hairy teenager from Dun­blane joined the full Tour in 2005 as the reign­ing 2004 US Open boys cham­pion, he was num­ber 407 in the world, but spent the first three months cop­ing with a back in­jury that had cut him down in South Africa be­cause, as he de­scribed it at the time, “I was grow­ing a lot”.

And how he grew. On the eve of what might well be his last match, four months shy of his 32nd birth­day after tum­bling to 230 in the rank­ings, Mur­ray can look back on a ca­reer lit­tered with gold and cru­elly blood­ied by the slings and ar­rows of life.

His right hip, never re­li­able, has fi­nally given up on him. His spirit is drained too. He is tired, fi­nally, of the strug­gle. He sur­vived back surgery to­wards the end of 2013 but, a year on from hav­ing his aching hip patched up by a Mel­bourne sur­geon to help him eke out a few more mo­ments in the sun, there is noth­ing left to give, nowhere else to go. To see him re­veal yes­ter­day that he could barely put on his shoes and socks with­out winc­ing was to wit­ness a war­rior lay­ing down his shield.

I watched that boys’ fi­nal at Flush­ing Mead­ows 15 years ago. Mur­ray, un­der-pow­ered but im­mensely gifted, was as pas­sion­ate and de­ter­mined on the court in beat­ing the cere­bral Rus­sian Sergiy Stakhovsky as he was in­tro­verted away from it. It would be eight years be­fore he re­turned to New York to win his first ma­jor, by which time he had ac­quired the bear­ing of a feared and con­fi­dent cham­pion, a fully grown man who knew his own worth.

Pal­pa­ble de­cency

They were one and the same, of course. The essen­tial Mur­ray has not changed. There is a pal­pa­ble de­cency about him, which sev­eral of his many friends men­tioned when they learned of his im­pend­ing farewell yes­ter­day.

He was and re­mains the owner of a par­tic­u­larly Scot­tish sense of hu­mour – not as the­atri­cal as, say, Billy Con­nolly, nor as earthy as Rab C Nes­bitt. Maybe some­where in be­tween. He de­lighted in the en­gi­neered mis­for­tune of his team mem­bers, all of whom have re­mained fiercely loyal to him – and not just be­cause he was pay­ing the cheques. Their re­spect for him as an ath­lete was deep, as it was among his peers.

Dan Evans and Mur­ray didn’t al­ways see eye to eye but there was warmth there too, es­pe­cially as Davis Cup team­mates. “It’s des­per­ately sad that his ca­reer’s had to end be­cause of in­jury and not so much on his own terms,” Evans said after qual­i­fy­ing for the Aus­tralian Open yes­ter­day. “But he’s had an unbelievable ca­reer, and he’s prob­a­bly one of the best sports­men Bri­tain’s ever had, if not the best.”

Kyle Ed­mund, who first met him when he was 14 and trea­sured in­vites to Mur­ray’s Mi­ami win­ter train­ing camps, agreed. “He’s been my big­gest role model. He’s Bri­tain’s great­est tennis player ever, and you could say maybe Bri­tain’s best sports­man ever.”

Ath­letes don’t al­ways en­joy talk­ing about other ath­letes. It can be a self-cen­tred ex­is­tence. But the com­pli­ments flowed like honey.

“Just to see his dreams come true and give hope to oth­ers and in­spire my­self as well as many oth­ers is just as­ton­ish­ing,” young Katie Boul­ter said. “When I cracked the top-100 he mes­saged me and was very sweet and sup­port­ive. I think he’s been that for a lot of peo­ple, and ev­ery sin­gle per­son I know ap­pre­ci­ates that.”

Jo­hanna Konta put it suc­cinctly: “He max­imised ev­ery­thing that he has, to bring the best out of him­self. Not many peo­ple can say that. That’s some­thing, as an ath­lete, to look up to. It makes me quite emo­tional, be­cause that’s a beau­ti­ful thing.”

It didn’t al­ways look beau­ti­ful. Mur­ray lacked the smooth grace of Roger Fed­erer (who doesn’t?). No­vak Djokovic was more star­tlingly elas­tic a re­triever of im­pos­si­ble “gets”, per­haps. Stan Wawrinka had more raw power, and Rafael Nadal could out-hus­tle him (as well as ev­ery­one else). But none of them had a big­ger heart than the Scot.

What most of us will re­mem­ber about him on court was his ex­tra­or­di­nary will to over­come, to re­peat­edly, per­versely rise from the depths, leav­ing his op­po­nent be­wil­dered.

Mur­ray could be mad­den­ing too. As he chased down the an­gels, his tem­per short­ened. He sulked on a planet of his own. He had as fruity a vo­cab­u­lary as any Glaswe­gian docker. But it was all gen­uine. In the many years I have been priv­i­leged to chron­i­cle his deeds, I can’t re­mem­ber him telling a lie.

Above all, Mur­ray should be remembered for what he did best: to drain the last drop of his tal­ent in pur­suit of vic­tory. So com­pletely did he use his re­serves in the con­clud­ing months of the 2016 sea­son to un­seat the fal­ter­ing Djokovic at the top of the rank­ings that his body screamed for him to cease. On July 10th, he won his se­cond Wim­ble­don – and went out drink­ing with (among oth­ers) a few of the tennis writ­ers he had pre­vi­ously kept at a re­spectable dis­tance. He rates that day as among his favourite ex­pe­ri­ences.

How­ever, when the fun stopped, he got down to busi­ness and pushed him­self to the outer lim­its of his phys­i­cal and men­tal en­durance. He won match after match, tour­na­ment upon tour­na­ment.

In­evitable de­scent

As Djokovic fell to pieces, Mur­ray got to the top of the moun­tain and briefly stayed there, but the de­scent was in­evitable once the adrenalin faded. His body be­gan to give up on him and, from then un­til now, his has been a fa­mil­iar fight against the odds.

There will be no more gam­bling, though. On Mon­day, he ex­pects to lose against Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round of the tour­na­ment he has en­tered 13 times now, reach­ing the fi­nal five times, and los­ing each one – to Djokovic on four oc­ca­sions, and once against Fed­erer. He will strain ev­ery mus­cle to prove him­self wrong one last time. The Spa­niard, a de­cent man, will not have a friend in the house. – Guardian

He’s Bri­tain’s great­est tennis player ever, and you could say maybe Bri­tain’s best sports­man ever

PHO­TO­GRAPH: SCOTT BARBOUR/GETTY

Andy Mur­ray an­nounces his im­pend­ing re­tire­ment from pro­fes­sional tennis, in Mel­bourne, ahead of the 2019 Aus­tralian Open.

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