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Andy Murray: The benevolent thorn in the side that tennis badly needed

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A hundred years from now, a tennis nerd will ask the floating hologram next to his ear about the great male players from the early part of the 21st century.

The hologram will wax poetic about a triumvirate of players known as the Big Three: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal. They ruled the sport before the advent of nuclear-powered strings and 200 miles per hour serves, winning around 70 Grand Slam titles between them. 

Then, almost as an afterthought, it will mention a couple of others who won a few of Earth’s most important tournaments, before the tours expanded to include the exoplanets of Alpha Centauri.

“Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray won three Grand Slams each and were the next best of the era of The Big Three,” the hologram will say.

Humans of 2124: do not trust your holograms, especially if they mention that in his final Wimbledon competition, likely the penultimate tournament of his career, he had to endure a 21-year-old deciding to blow off a mixed doubles match with him at the last minute. Emma Raducanu, his compatriot who is reviving her nascent career with a run into the second week at Wimbledon, withdrew in order to prioritise her singles chances in an open draw, over a chance to be on court with Murray, her idol, for what figured to be his final match on the Wimbledon grass.

Andy Murray spent his career defying expectations under the pressure of living up to them. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

So other than a planned doubles effort at the Olympics, this really is it for Wimbledon, allowing the efforts to secure his proper spot in the tennis lexicon to begin. No disrespect to Wawrinka, an excellent player with a fine career, but Murray didn’t spend the past three decades bucking convention, being the ultimate thorn in the side of so many assumptions about tennis, to have holograms and the tennis nerds that employ them remember him in the same sentence.

Maybe this is what kept Murray going the past year and a half, desperate for one more run to the business end of the grandest events in the sport long after pretty much everyone could see that wasn’t in the stars. Maybe this is why he hobbled onto courts to take on the best players in the world when climbing stairs was becoming a struggle.

In March, Murray stood in a hotel gym with Brad Gilbert, the former pro and longtime coach, in Indian Wells, California, late at 4 am. An early rising insomniac and a jet-lagged Scot jabbering about new racket technology, Murray telling Gilbert that he might have found a new stick that could give him a little extra… something.

Something that could prove that he still had the magic.

Maybe Murray really was sticking around simply because he loved just about everything about his job — the feel of the racket in his hands, the life of a globetrotting superstar, the incomparable highs that the heat of competitions produced. He burned with jealousy watching players like Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz as they started out on their journeys. He would have gone back to the beginning if he could have, not to change anything necessarily, but just because he would have loved to do it all again.    

“I want to play tennis because I, you know, I do enjoy this,” he said last year in Surbiton, where he was playing a Challenger event instead of the French Open to get extra time on the grass ahead of Wimbledon. 

“I love it. It’s not like this is like a massive chore for me.”

Andy Murray Yonex scaled

Murray and his new Yonex racket in Geneva, earlier in 2024. (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images)

It never really was, even if that’s the way it looked as he growled his way through 1,000 matches. But it was also the joy of playing a game he loved, and proving just about every assumption about him and his sport wrong.

First there was the idea that a Scot could even be any good at junior level tennis. Golf maybe, but not tennis. Too many talented kids from friendlier tennis climates and locales to contend with. There weren’t many indoor courts, and not too many expert coaches other than his mother, Judy, and surely not enough top-tier competition to help him develop, other than his older brother, Jamie. 

Murray wasn’t about to let that get in his way, whether that meant training harder during those first formative years or taking the radical step that few of his peers took.

“My mum did her best to create an environment for not just us two, but the players that were of a sort of performance level, and to get us together as much as we could because she understood how difficult it was,” Jamie Murray said during an interview last year.

“Obviously, Andy left when he was 15 — he went to Spain, he made the decision: ‘I really want to be a tennis player and to do that, I need to go to Spain to train’ and he was obviously very headstrong in that and he went. I stayed at home.” 

Habits form early in tennis. In most cases, a 25-year-old’s forehand won’t look all that different from his 15-year-old version. Same goes for attitudes and approaches, like Murray’s penchant for bucking conventional wisdom.

So Andy, nice junior career, but surely you won’t be able to win much against Federer and Nadal, or even your buddy from juniors, Djokovic. Born at the wrong time. Tough luck. 

He beat Nadal seven times and Federer and Djokovic 11.

Andy Murray Djokovic scaled

Murray and his buddy from Serbia playing doubles together at the 2006 Australian Open. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

OK Andy, nice that you can get the occasional win against top players, but a British man hasn’t won a Grand Slam in nearly a century. Can’t happen. 

And then he won the U.S. Open in 2012 and Wimbledon in 2013 and 2016, despite more pressure than any player of the modern era has likely ever felt on Centre Court.

And don’t forget about the losses, including five Australian Open finals, only to either Djokovic or Federer, like so many of his losses in the finals or semifinals of big tournaments. 

“I’m playing against guys that are winning these tournaments like 12 times each year in their careers,” he recalled during an interview last year.

And yet he still won 46 tournaments, including 14 Masters 1000 titles, the level just below a Grand Slam, far more than any player of his era other than the Big Three. Not to pick on Wawrinka, but he won 16 titles, just one a Masters 1000. 

Nice, Andy, but the No 1 taking in this era is out of reach.

He got there in 2016, when Nadal and Djokovic were still in their prime and Federer still had another three years of winning Grand Slams and making finals.

It didn’t come easy.



Fifty Shades of Andy Murray

“I basically just did everything, you know,” he recalled. “I would be on the running track. I’d be in the gym, lifting weights, I’d be doing core sessions, I’d be doing hot yoga, I’d be doing sprint work, speed work, just chucking everything at myself.”

He paid a price for that, putting so much stress on his hip that he had to undergo resurfacing surgery in 2019. Doctors told him he’d be lucky to be able to hit tennis balls with his children one day. He turned those words into a challenge to prove them as wrong as he possibly could, rising to 36th in the world last summer. 

He relished being a kind of guinea pig, one of the first top athletes to test the limits of a hip made largely of metal.

Andy Murray hip

Murray’s hip first derailed him, then became one of the symbols of his career. (Ashley Western / CameraSport via Getty Images)

“No one really knows where that limit is,” he said.

“I want to see what that is.”

All of that, though, was just the competitive contrarian in him, which extended to his off-court empathy for subjects and people that the sport can relegate or try to avoid.

Male tennis players have never shown all that much respect for the women’s game. Murray talked it up and hired a female coach, Amelie Mauresmo.

They also rarely speak ill of their fellow players, or support any action that might cause much discomfort to one of them. Murray was among the first to criticize the ATP Tour for dragging its feet for months before announcing it would investigate domestic abuse allegations against Alexander Zverev. The German settled a case involving charges brought by his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child out of court, during the French Open.

Murray bought a condo in Miami and studied the training and business habits of NBA players to see what he could learn from them. When he didn’t like how management companies treated athletes, he opened his own shop. He bought an old deteriorating hotel in Scotland where his family had celebrated weddings and other important moments, even though advisors told him it was a terrible idea. He and his wife, Kim, have turned it into a luxury destination. He collects art.

Andy Murray Kim Sears Wimbledon scaled

Murray joins Kim and his team at Wimbledon after winning it, finally, in 2013. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

 So, of course he was never going to leave the tennis court when everyone else started planning his retirement. Of course he was going to do it his way, trying to wring every last chance he may or may not have had for glory out of his body, and that new Yonex racket he tried earlier this year, which led him to Gilbert in Miami at 4 am.

He would not just acquiesce, even attempting to return from back surgery on a spinal cyst in time for one last singles match on Centre Court that he would likely lose. There is a reason Murray holds the record for coming back from two sets down, overcoming that deficit 11 times, that last one at the 2023 Australian Open, when he played for ​​five hours and 45 minutes and beat Thanasi Kokkinakis 4-6, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 7-5 just after that magic time, 4 am.

After some 30 years of going about life and tennis that way, old habits die hard.

Murray knew the end would come eventually.

Taking on conventional wisdom is one thing. Beating time and ageing is an altogether different animal. Murray just had to give it his best fight, which was the easiest part of the hardest thing, because he’s never known any other way. 

(Top photos: Joe Toth/AELTC Pool, Simon Bruty/Anychance / Getty Images; Design: Dan Goldfarb for The Athletic)

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