Thursday 25 April 2019

Jonathan Liew: 'Great as Andy Murray was as a player - he's probably an even better person'


Andy Murray. Photo: PA
Andy Murray. Photo: PA

Jonathan Liew

The volley is superb: low, hard and right in the backhand corner. You couldn't have placed it any more awkwardly with your two hands. And so Andy Murray doubles back in retreat. Without so much as a glance, he lashes a backhand down the line, past his startled opponent, onto the line for a clean winner.

"Oh, yes," Andrew Castle purrs on the BBC commentary. Centre Court whoops and gasps. The year is 2017, the skies over Wimbledon are blue, and the top seed Andy Murray is about to go a set and a break up against Sam Querrey in the Wimbledon quarter-final. It's also the beginning of the end.

Murray's the world No 1. The defending Wimbledon champion. The defending Olympic champion. The preeminent figure in British sport, and certainly its most loved. He's 30 years old and after a career spent labouring in the shadow of his three mountainous contemporaries, this feels like his ascent, his moment, his time, perhaps even his era.

And as you watch it back now, the knowledge that what you're actually seeing is perhaps Murray's last ever match at Wimbledon feels like an unforgivably cruel joke: a sick punchline you still can't quite believe, even when you know what happens next.

What happens next is this: Querrey will break back and win the second set. Then, as the injury in Murray's hip swells from a murmur to a warble to a full-blooded scream, he'll win 12 of the last 13 games, and the match with it. The following month, Rafa Nadal will take Murray's cherished world No 1 ranking.

And then about 18 months later - 18 months of invasive surgery and interminable gym sessions and endless rehab and aborted comebacks and unimaginable frustration and agonising pain - he'll call it a day. The tears will flow as they did on Thursday night.

In a faltering voice, he'll talk of making it through one more season, one more summer, one more Wimbledon. But the weariness and the torment in his face will tell their own story. The pain, we'll realise, wasn't just physical. Murray's had enough. He's done. It's over.

* * * * *

The sudden disintegration of Murray's career - at a relatively young age - shouldn't obscure the fact that he still enjoyed a pretty decent run. Of course it feels premature, and is. But in a historical context, a 14-year career in the upper chambers of men's tennis is fairly average. It's one fewer than Boris Becker and Mats Wilander; one more than Stefan Edberg; the same as Pete Sampras. The trouble is that for virtually his entire adult life, these are not the players Murray has been judged against.

Murray wasn't a freak of technique like Roger Federer, nor a freak of endurance like Rafa Nadal, nor a freak of physics like Novak Djokovic. In many ways, he was all too human. He didn't have an earth-shattering serve or a gigantic forehand, or even the advantage of left-handedness.

What he did have was plenty of speed, bundles of intelligence and the pure, untrammelled desire that allowed him to hold his own in the most brutally competitive era men's tennis has ever seen.

His three Grand Slams might have been worth twice that in another era. The counter-argument, of course, is that the murderous pursuit of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic is what hauled him to such otherworldly standards in the first place. Witness the closing stages of the 2013 Wimbledon final against Djokovic, a passage of play during which Murray emptied himself so thoroughly that he could barely recall it afterwards. Such was the immense effort of keeping pace with the sport's greatest ever generation, and perhaps it was no surprise in retrospect that he eventually broke himself trying.

Injuries plagued Murray from childhood. At the age of 17 he was diagnosed with a split patella and advised that he would probably never play tennis at a high level. Five years later, he reluctantly bowed to pressure from coaches and team-mates and played a crucial Davis Cup tie against Poland, despite a serious wrist injury that he ended up aggravating. It was both his gift and his ultimate curse that he was so adept at playing through pain.

His retirement will invite a litany of tributes. And if some of the adulation Murray received occasionally seemed a touch excessive - the three BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, the mid-career knighthood - then it was partly the giddy thrill of what he achieved. The first British men's Grand Slam champion for 76 years, the Davis Cup he won almost single-handed in 2015, not one but two Wimbledon singles titles, not one but two Olympic golds: for a nation reared on tennis ignominy, there was a scarcely credible quality to it all.

* * * * *

The day after Murray became the first Briton to win the US Open boys' singles title in 2004, they discovered that the Lawn Tennis Association's only media officer had already flown home, Tim Henman already having been eliminated. Shortly after that, Andy's mother Judy remembers pleading for funding from an executive at the Scottish Institute of Sport with zero interest in tennis. "We've got a junior Grand Slam champion," she urges him. "We're not interested in junior Grand Slam champions," comes the reply. "We're interested in Grand Slam champions."

And yet, Murray's real legacy has nothing to do with any of the above. If his greatest achievement as a child was simply to make it into the pro game, to emerge from a country with virtually no tennis culture to speak of through guts and ambition and sheer competitive instinct, then his greatest achievement as an adult was to match his grace on the court with grace off it. As good as Andy Murray was as a tennis player, he may be even better as a person.

When he named Amelie Mauresmo as his coach in 2014, he was shocked by the level of hostility her appointment attracted behind closed doors. Fellow players on the tour would send him crude comments via text message. The whole episode seemed to stir something in Murray, who over recent years has established a reputation as a strident advocate of the women's game, of women's interests, of the right to equal pay and equal treatment both in sport and wider society.

Unlike many of his generation, Murray used the platform his athletic ability granted him, not to advance his own interests, but those of others. He slapped down reporters who failed to take women's achievements into account. He seemed to give extra consideration to questions from female journalists in press conferences. The summer before last, he pledged his prize money at Queens Club to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, the survivor of one unspeakable tragedy (the Dunblane massacre of 1996) showing solidarity with those of another. Those who know him describe him as drily funny, relentlessly loyal and decent.

None of which will be much comfort to him now, as he stares into the abyss, his body falling apart, the powers he has been honing for a lifetime slipping from him. But you hope that in time, the dominant emotion will be not despair, but pride. That he'll come to remember his own career as we'll remember it: as a brilliant streak of sunlight, a freezing of time, a bold and bravura testament to the power of dreams.

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