Despondent Murray facing toughest test
Shooting from hip has not always won admirers but injured Scot needs support more than ever
When Andy Murray withdrew from the Australian Open in Melbourne last week, it was not exactly news. A few days earlier he had withdrawn from the Brisbane International, having not competed in any tennis tournament since Wimbledon last year. The big news would have been if he had finally pronounced himself fit.
But Murray, who has been nursing a debilitating hip injury for the better part of a year, seems no nearer to returning to playing at the top level. He may even have to undergo surgery, which, even if successful (and hip surgery doesn't enjoy a stand-out record in tennis), would mean a long period of rehabilitation.
Murray will be 31 in May, an age by which many great players have retired. And Murray, should there be any doubt, is a great player. It's been his misfortune or blessing, depending on how you view the situation, for his career to coincide with those whom John McEnroe has called "three of the five greatest players that ever lived".
And yet he has managed to win three Grand Slam tournaments, two Olympic gold medals, got to eight other Grand Slam finals, and reached the No 1 ranking in the world. Those are stellar achievements at any time in history, let alone in an era featuring Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Nonetheless, Murray hasn't always enjoyed due respect for his accomplishments, particularly in the UK. This is partly because he has never looked entirely at home with stardom. He lacks the multilingual social graces displayed by the other three in the so-called big four. Nor does he enjoy their physical grace.
To watch Murray in between points is to see an often sullen, frustrated figure who seems at war with himself, physically and psychologically. He lopes and moans and grimaces. But as soon as the ball is in play he is a supreme athlete, one of the fittest and fastest the game has known, and extraordinarily deft with the tennis ball. Still, it may be the sulky adolescent's gait rather than the sprinter's movement that has lodged more firmly in the public imagination.
Of course it would be ludicrous to suggest Murray has gained no recognition for his feats. But there remains a reluctance in many quarters to appreciate the singularity of his efforts. Here was a kid from a modest background in Dunblane, a small town in Scotland's central commuter belt. When he was eight he hid in a classroom in Dunblane primary school while Thomas Hamilton, whom Murray knew, killed 16 children. It's an experience that he has chosen not to discuss publicly.
Less than two years later, his parents split up. He has said that he found tennis - his mother Judy began coaching him when he was three years old - an escape from tensions at home. On court, he explained, "I was away from the arguments my parents were having - I could just go out and play".
After the divorce, he would later recall, he wasn't sure where he should be. It seemed like he was the awkward subject of parental competition. "If I stayed with my mother for two nights, then I felt I should stay with my father for two nights. At Christmas I didn't know how long to spend with each of them."
At 16 he left home to join a tennis academy in Barcelona. He feared that he would be homesick, but instead, as he put it in his autobiography Hitting Back, he "didn't want to come back".
Plenty of children would have struggled to come through one of those upheavals. But they seemed to harden Murray. Certainly, he was not one of those youngsters who was going to waste time on mastering the art of charm that could be spent playing football or honing his backhand.
There remains a kind of steely desire in Murray to tell the truth as he sees it and not bother sugar-coating anything for public consumption. It's a quality that at its least appealing can seem stroppy, but is just as likely to be refreshingly direct. Last year at Wimbledon, after his defeat by Sam Querrey in the quarter-final, he was asked by a journalist what he thought about Querrey being the first American player to reach a Major semi-final since 2009.
" Male player," snarled Murray, rightly angered by the journalist ignoring the fact that Serena Williams had won 12 Grand Slams since 2009.
"That's my boy," tweeted Murray's mother.
For an elite sportsman, Murray has an admirable record on combating sexism. He remains one of the few top male tennis players to have employed a female coach, Amélie Mauresmo, and he has always been a keen follower and fan of the women's game. Murray, said Serena Williams, "has spoken up for women's issues and women's rights, especially in tennis . . . that's one thing that we love about him."
It's a love, nevertheless, that hasn't always been shared by the public. In Britain, of course, they tend to respect winners, but save their love for heroic losers, or near-winners. Murray has had his share of near-wins, but he has also been a real winner, and made no apology for devoting himself to that end. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the outpouring of emotion on social media that greeted Murray's announcement last week about his hip was occasioned by his facing a hefty loss - of his career. Giving voice to his frustration, Murray displayed the kind of unselfconscious vulnerability that tends to win the hearts of those who don't warm to tunnel-vision winners.
Murray released a personal statement on Instagram, lamenting his plight in emotive terms. He spoke about missing tennis a great deal and how he hadn't realised just how much he loved the game until his prolonged period out of it. He put the message up with a photo of himself as a young boy, he explained, because "the little kid inside me just wants to play tennis".
Tennis is a strangely intense sport. Although there is no contact, as there is in football and rugby, injuries are commonplace from the wear and tear of fierce competition - almost half the top 10 players in the world are currently injured. But it's also a punishing sport psychologically. Although players travel with their retinues, they are on the court alone, against their opponent, but battling themselves, week after week, struggling for an elusive perfection.
Many players come to resent the game. There is a high burnout rate among young professionals, and even hugely successful ones, like Andre Agassi, report coming to loathe playing tennis. Murray showed the other side of the story in his message - an incurable passion for what he is supremely gifted at doing.
Whether or not he elects to have surgery, this doesn't have to spell the end or even the decline of Murray. Federer and Nadal have suffered lengthy lay-offs in their 30s and came back last year to split the four Grand Slams between them and return to the top of the rankings.
It will take enormous determination to emulate those kind of comebacks but Murray has never lacked in that department.
He gets that from his mother, who has also had to overcome a public image that bears little resemblance to her actual character. She endured countless sleepless nights and hefty debt to help guide Murray and his brother to the top of the tennis world (Jamie Murray has been ranked No 1 doubles player).
Murray, too, will have some difficult times ahead. If he doesn't prevail, it won't be through shortage of effort. And he'll just have to settle with being the greatest British tennis player in 80 years, and one of its finest athletes of all time. But if he does make it back from this low point, let's hope it's on a tidal wave of emotional support.
The Murray File
Born May 15, 1987 in Glasgow, the second son of William and Judy Murray — a tennis coach and the daughter of Roy Erskine, a professional footballer in the Scottish Football League.
Best of times: Although it wasn’t his first Grand Slam tournament title, winning Wimbledon in 2013 was probably the highlight of his career, not least because it broke the 77-year wait for a British male to win Wimbledon.
Worst of times: As a survivor of the Dunblane massacre, Murray can’t really be said to have had his worst time in the field of sport. But in that field, the eight defeats in Grand Slam finals have taken their toll.
What he says: “In tennis, it is not the opponent you fear, it is the failure itself, knowing how near you were but just out of reach.”
What others say: “He’s always been top four, but it’s been a distant fourth . . . I think it’s amazing that he reached No 1, considering the obstacles, the competition that he was up against. I think that’s tremendous.” John McEnroe.
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