Finally the realisation that it’s over. There are few full stops as merciless as those that bring a brilliant sporting career to a close. How it might end, indeed that it ever will, is never part of our thinking when as young men and women bristling with ambition and vigour we set out to conquer.
The no-filter, full-frontal Andy Murray revealed in the Melbourne press conference was quintessential Muzza. More than a few pages of this correspondent’s career notebook is mottled by tears spilled by Murray in those hollow moments that follow the big defeats, eight of those coming in grand slam finals. The haunted soul witnessed in Melbourne Park was a ghostly reprise of the shell-shocked 21-year-old who presented to a small number of British sports writers following his first defeat in a grand slam final 11 years ago in New York.
Murray had beaten Rafa Nadal for the first time in a rain-affected semi-final. Waiting for him in the final was a peak Roger Federer. The Swiss had already clocked 12 grand slam titles. Apart from a brief Murray rally in the second set, the 13th was not long coming. Exhausted, emotionally crushed and maybe even a little embarrassed Murray could barely organise his thoughts in the aftermath of the three-set route.
What struck this observer was the honesty and courage of the vanquished. Murray was hurting to the tips of his toes. Through those mumbled, tearful responses that would become so familiar Murray revealed the calibre of the individual he was. There would be no retreat, no attempt to hide from the truth. He would, he said, dredge the core of his being to one day be good enough to win a big one.
Eighteen months later in Australia Murray would make his second appearance in a final. Beforehand in the corridors beneath the Rod Laver Arena, I clocked him chatting with the boxer Ricky Hatton. It struck me how similar they were. Murray is a boxing nut. Like Hatton, who was cursed to walk this way in the era of Floyd Mayweather Jnr and Manny Pacquiao, Murray was asked to slug it out against arguably the three greatest players in the history of the game.
Hatton was marmalised by the Pacman and picked apart by Mayweather. He had far too much for most, a fine, all-action technician, punch perfect with a brilliant engine. If Hatton lacked one thing it was a signature shot, that unanswerable blow that elevated the two men who took him down. In the company of Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Murray was likewise exposed, a fraction short. We are talking nano measures here, enough in critical moments to make the difference.
There was no shortfall in ticker, however. Of all the power tributes tweeted out to Murray by his peers this from Andy Roddick says it all. “I tip my cap to @andy_murray! Absolute legend. Short list of best tacticians in history. Unreal results in a brutal era… nothing but respect here.” His talent was not the only part of his appeal. Murray’s integrity was the feature that really drew a crowd among his peers. His willingness to speak frankly about topical issues was always welcome in the press room for the controversy it brought. Anybody but England to win the World Cup in 2006 was a comedy quip that was used against him, not least by The Sun, for whom he was a columnist at the time.
The revelation the year before in a BBC interview with Sue Barker that The Sun was the only newspaper he read pointed to a strong anti-establishment reflex, one in the eye to the Telegraph reading colonels at the All England Club. Murray would never be defined by others. He loved his football. Would often slip incognito into London hotbeds as diverse as Craven Cottage, The Valley and Upton Park. The Sun fed his twin passions of football and boxing in fun, easily digestible chunks. The paper signed him up on the back of that interview, a magnificent counter move on his part that placed him squarely in the space occupied by the anti-hero.
Murray would later glide into the mainstream with that thrilling victory over Federer – at last – to take Olympic gold in London, followed weeks later by a first Grand Slam success in New York, at Djokovic’s expense. And then came Wimbledon 2013, another spear through the Djokovic defences that ended the practice of measuring time using Fred Perry clocks.
Murray contested as many grand slam finals as John McEnroe and one more than Boris Becker. He did what Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, McEnroe and Becker never could by reaching the final of all four majors. Empty the contents of Murray’s career on to a table and it shows a hefty 45 tournament wins including three grand slams and two Olympic titles.
That is a tidy bundle in the context of a British tennis environment that failed to produce a male champion in 76 years. Murray’s contribution to the British sporting scene will doubtless acquire even greater weight in the years ahead as we wait hopelessly for a player half as good to come along.
As he might, Murray has identified Wimbledon as the place to say goodbye, one last loving embrace of Centre Court. Though you can understand the sentiment a better way might be to go now without hitting another ball. Let us remember him as he was before his old man’s hip brought him low; fists pumping, teeth bared, filling SW19 with primal screams.
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