Like his bro­ken body, the truth is painful for one of game’s great com­peti­tors

Scot is hav­ing to come to terms with the end of his ca­reer – and that will be a tor­tu­ous process

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Tennis - OLIVER BROWN

It has be­come the surest glim­mer of Jan­uary sun­shine, the sight of Andy Mur­ray’s strain­ing limbs framed by Mel­bourne Park’s Plex­i­cush­ion blue. His deep runs at the Aus­tralian Open are such an an­nual rit­ual that he re­mains the only player of the mod­ern era, male or fe­male, to reach the fi­nal of the same ma­jor five times and never win.

It is a sight, sadly, of which the Bri­tish pub­lic has most likely seen the last, af­ter the Scot last night con­firmed his in­ten­tion to re­tire from ten­nis in re­sponse to un­remit­ting hip pain.

Mur­ray’s ca­reer, adorned with two Wim­ble­don ti­tles and two Olympic gold medals, has never been less than dra­matic, but one strug­gled to re­call a mo­ment laden with more pathos than his lat­est Mel­bourne press con­fer­ence, which be­gan at mid­night UK time, where he dis­closed that he could not even put his socks on with­out agony.

Wim­ble­don, he claimed, was his log­i­cal end point, but he is at the mercy of an in­jury that stalks his ev­ery wak­ing hour. So grim is the strug­gle with his in­fer­nal hip, there is a real pos­si­bil­ity that his first-round match against Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut could be his last pro­fes­sional bow.

The signs were omi­nous from the sec­ond Mur­ray sat down, with a cou­ple of ques­tions about his health caus­ing him to leave the room in tears. But the im­pact of his sub­se­quent state­ments, ac­knowl­edg­ing that this sum­mer’s Wim­ble­don could be his farewell, leaves Bri­tish sport reel­ing. The coun­try is los­ing a colos­sus.

For Mur­ray, 24 hours of reck­on­ing had be­gun with a prac­tice match against No­vak Djokovic, which served, sadly, as the bleak­est nos­tal­gia trip. The score­line: 6-1, 4-1 in the Serb’s favour af­ter 49 min­utes, the sorry spec­ta­cle cur­tailed only when they ran be­yond their al­lot­ted time slot.

Even when Mur­ray wheeled his bags through Brisbane ar­rivals a fort­night ago, he could still clasp faint hope of a re­nais­sance. But events since, from a tear­ful on-court interview to his vis­i­bly im­paired move­ment against Djokovic, have left lit­tle doubt that we are wit­ness­ing an endgame.

While Tiger Woods has some­how nav­i­gated a path back to the golf­ing peak af­ter a litany of knee and back trou­ble, his sport has al­lowed him to be com­pet­i­tive even with what he once called a “Bandaid swing”.

At 31, Mur­ray has no such hope nurs­ing a crocked hip through four-hour bat­tles with younger, faster op­po­nents wed­ded to the same re­lent­less re­triev­ing game that he once made his own. An opener against Bautista Agut, Djokovic’s con­queror in Qatar last week, threat­ens to make this im­bal­ance of power painfully clear.

Mur­ray sees that prospect re­peat­ing it­self and re­alises that it is one he can­not bear. One school of thought sug­gests that we should be grate­ful he is back com­pet­ing at all, that we ought not to de­spair at see­ing him so hope­lessly out­classed. And yet the only con­struc­tive way to an­a­lyse Mur­ray is to judge him by the stan­dards he sets for him­self.

This is a fig­ure who, in 2013, en­gi­neered the coun­try’s great­est sport­ing cathar­sis in liv­ing mem­ory. To imag­ine that he is likely to be con­tent pick­ing up his first-round loser’s cheque, just so long as he can keep swing­ing a rac­quet, is ab­surd. The last time Mur­ray fell at the open­ing hur­dle in Mel­bourne, he was a tru­cu­lent 21-year-old with in­die-band hair. It is hardly a stan­dard to which he would wish to re­turn.

If Mur­ray truly be­lieved that turn­ing up was all that mat­tered, then no­body could be­grudge him see­ing out his ca­reer how­ever he deemed fit. But he is an­guished, fi­nally ac­knowl­edg­ing that his body has given up. What marks Mur­ray out, at his best, is his unerring con­sis­tency: al­though he is level with Stan Wawrinka on three ma­jor ti­tles, he has ap­peared in eight more fi­nals.

If he can­not ad­vance to the sharp end of a tour­na­ment again – and his world rank­ing of 230 would have made, at least in the short term, for some bru­tal draws – then there is no longer any­thing that can sus­tain him.

Through it all, Mur­ray has re­tained not just his fa­tal­is­tic sense of hu­mour, but his es­sen­tial de­cency. When one fan spoke of her thrill at be­ing court­side for his past­ing by Djokovic, he not only apol­o­gised for not be­ing more en­ter­tain­ing, but of­fered her a ticket to watch his match with Bautista Agut.

A cer­tain ex­is­ten­tial angst, though, is al­ways close to the sur­face. In Mel­bourne last night, it all came spilling forth. For Mur­ray, as for any great ath­lete con­fronting a pre­ma­ture ending, there is a si­lent ter­ror about what, ex­actly, he is ex­pected to do with the rest of his life.

His Twit­ter bio reads sim­ply: “I play ten­nis.” His fes­tive New Year’s Eve mes­sage on In­sta­gram – “Cel­e­brat­ing the end of 2018. What a s--- year that was” – was in­formed purely by his chronic in­abil­ity to do just that.

There has been no short­age of pro­fes­sional obit­u­ar­ies that have jumped the gun. Roger Federer was con­sid­ered all but washed-up five years ago and could yet win his third straight Aus­tralian Open. But Federer’s only se­ri­ous in­jury in a 20-year ca­reer came while run­ning his chil­dren a bath.

Mur­ray’s end­less toil, from his Mi­ami boot camps to his gy­ro­tonic twist­ing to his back-of-the-court scur­ry­ing, has ex­acted, alas, a far more griev­ous toll. He is not a man of any overt reli­gious faith, but he at last seems to have ac­cepted the bib­li­cal tru­ism that while the spirit is will­ing, the flesh is weak.

Hard times: Andy Mur­ray waves to the crowd af­ter de­feat by No­vak Djokovic

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