Looks like fi­nal game, set and match for much-loved Scot

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan

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?

Yes­ter­day, 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 No­vak 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.

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.

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.

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.

Par­ti­san crowd

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. 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 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. 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.

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.

Bud­ding friend­ship

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 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 yes­ter­day 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.

Mur­ray looked like what he is: a hugely de­cent and emo­tional Scot­tish lad who some­how be­came bril­liant at tennis through pure heart and per­se­ver­ance

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