Andy Murray is an extraordinary, magical man… he overcame the greats

The public tears were painful enough, but the heartbreak had actually begun earlier on the Margaret Court Arena, as Andy Murray moved agonisingly, helplessly, through an exhibition practice match with Novak Djokovic.

There was an umpire and line judges, there were ball boys and 2,000 fans, but there was no sign that Murray could hope to perform at the level that once set him apart at Grand Slam tournaments; or at any level that could satisfy his immense competitive drive, really. 

The score, 6-1, 4-1 to Djokovic when the match was curtailed, told only a fraction of the story. Djokovic had taken pity on his forlorn, raddled opponent, working hard to keep him in the rallies, even conceding a point on a winning shot that had been called out. 

Andy Murray has been struggling with his hip injury for more than 18 months

Andy Murray has been struggling with his hip injury for more than 18 months

He afforded Murray the respect he deserved, and that is clearly felt for him throughout tennis, judging by the tributes and love that arrived in torrents on Friday. 

Inside, though, Murray would have hated Djokovic’s gentle concern. Hated the sympathy, hated his reduced circumstances, hated the pain that never goes away and tells him, with every flinch and wince, that it is almost certainly over. They used to compete as equals. Those days, he assuredly knows, are over.

Later, when he fought unsuccessfully to hold back tears – another losing battle, there are just so many of them these days – as he relayed his latest setback, he spoke about the fun going out of the game.  ‘I can’t do what I want to do, what I love doing,’ he said. ‘It’s not enjoyable anymore.’ 

Enjoyable? When was it ever enjoyable? Murray often looked as miserable as sin on court. He grimaced, cursed, limped. He picked arguments with anonymous figures in his box and, once, comically, at the US Open, with the sun for casting off-putting shadows. 

He looked tortured and so were we, because Murray’s style, the way he ground out results tactically, often left games on a knife edge. Yet to see that as his one dimensional persona, to take it all at face value, was to misjudge him. That was Murray having fun. That was his idea of a good time. 

Once he had won the US Open in 2012, once he had got that screeching Grand Slam monkey off his back, Murray loved each harrowing second of it. Great athletes do. Paula Radcliffe genuinely enjoyed running marathon distances to the point of exhaustion; Mo Farah must, too. Great batsmen like fast bowling. Chris Froome positively thrills to cycling uphill. 

Murray would have hated Djokovic’s gentle concern during their practice match this week 

Murray would have hated Djokovic’s gentle concern during their practice match this week 

In those moments when the world looked at Murray and saw a man on the brink of collapse, either physically or emotionally, we missed that this was what he wanted more than anything in the world. That he had pushed his body to its absolute limit to reach this moment. He loved that anguish more than Floyd Mayweather loves money.

Murray could have been very good at tennis and still been the best British player since Fred Perry. He could have carried on losing finals, or been satisfied with the last four, and still enjoyed great wealth and the love of the nation. 

Tim Henman never made it past the semi-final of any Grand Slam tournament and a slab of the All-England Club is named in his honour. 

Yet Murray pushed. He pushed beyond where the natural boundaries of his ability fell because he believed, with extreme athleticism, endurance and strategy, he could overcome the greatest tennis players of this, or any, generation. 

So he endured spells of training camp isolation, employed the most demanding coach in Ivan Lendl, sacrificed with an intensity that left rivals in awe, until he achieved his aims. 

Tim Henman never made it past the semis of a Grand Slam yet is still honoured at Wimbledon

Tim Henman never made it past the semis of a Grand Slam yet is still honoured at Wimbledon

His greatest matches were brutal, gladiatorial, epic wars of attrition. Darren Cahill, the coach who helped Andre Agassi become the oldest player to reach No 1, explained: ‘When you search for examples of ’emptied the bucket to be as good as they could be’, there should be a picture of Andy Murray sitting there. 

‘Remarkable discipline for training, competition, sacrifice, perfection. A little crazy, but a legend of a bloke.’

Crazy? Of course he was crazy. Before the Davis Cup final in 2015, the sponsors organised a fun quiz between the players and it was Murray who, at the end, fixed the host with a stare that could stun an elephant at ten paces and asked him who had won. 

Crazy? After an incredibly intense battle against Djokovic, Murray revealed that he routinely loses a toenail or two during those encounters, simply ripped off by the wear and tear of being moved around the court by such a supreme athlete. He thought the same probably happened to Djokovic against him. 

It was all so matter-of-fact, all so goes-with-the-territory. It must have hurt like hell. All the time unseen, internal, trauma was taking its toll. There was no-one braver, and certainly, Murray is the only player who has forced Djokovic into what amounted to an act of physical surrender.

His first Grand Slam win, the 2012 US Open, was the longest final in the tournament’s history and Djokovic, who forced his way back into the game from two sets down, could take no more. 

Murray’s 6-2 final set victory was the equivalent of seeing the great welterweight warrior Roberto Duran tell the referee ‘no mas’ during his title fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. 

His first Grand Slam win, the 2012 US Open, was the longest final in the tournament’s history 

His first Grand Slam win, the 2012 US Open, was the longest final in the tournament’s history 

Djokovic could no longer get around the court; Murray had ground him almost to standstill. It was an astonishing performance, one of the greatest by any British sportsman in history. 

It is those efforts, those moments, the occasions when Murray has emptied the bucket, that have left him where he is now: in pain so intense just the act of putting on socks is filled with drama.

As recently as 2016, he fulfilled another ambition, rising to No 1 in the rankings. He did this by committing to an extraordinary schedule, culminating in the ATP World Tour final in London. 

At the end was, as ever, Djokovic for a match that would decide who finished the campaign in premier position. No tennis season had ever concluded that way, with a final between the players vying for top spot. 

Murray had lost to Djokovic in 13 of their 15 previous matches. Yet here, again, he triumphed. Somehow, as in Flushing Meadows, as at Wimbledon in 2013, he found a way of overcoming an opponent that is considered his superior. Did this push precipitate the hip issue that will lead to his retirement this year? 

Murray was already taking painkillers as a matter of course for hard court matches. Born with bipartite patella – the kneecap remains as separate bones, rather than fusing together – Murray has always placed the most punishing demands on his body. Ultimately, there was always likely to be a debilitating toll.

Murray’s detractors – and some remain, despite all the evidence – foolishly compare his record to contemporaries such as Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal and mark him down as inferior.

They are right: he is.  So really, he shouldn’t have won any Grand Slams at all; he shouldn’t be the only player with two Olympic gold medals in singles competition, he shouldn’t have spent any time at No 1, he shouldn’t have won the Davis Cup for Great Britain with an individual performance that rewrote the record books. 

The Scotsman is the only tennis player with two Olympic gold medals in singles competition

The Scotsman is the only tennis player with two Olympic gold medals in singles competition

Given the company, everything he has achieved is against the odds. So it isn’t what is missing that counts, but what he has won, and that he has done this as an outlier, in a country with so little heritage in his field, such a scarcity of inspiration. 

Every giant step Murray has made, is to escape the shadow of Fred Perry, a pre-war hero. It would be like Rory McIlroy having to look to Henry Cotton as his role model.

It was just over a year ago that Murray posted a picture of his younger self, next to his latest injury update – the kid who just wanted to play tennis. Back then, he was contemplating a hip operation and envisaging a positive future where he could exist inside his sport’s top 30. 

He seemed to have settled for the least-worst scenario. Sadly, he was being optimistic, even then. His ambition now is to make it to a last Wimbledon before retiring, but that deserved farewell is no longer guaranteed. 

Sport is cruel. Murray’s next game could be his last, if indeed there is a final match to be played in Melbourne. 

This time, the bucket may at last be empty. What an extraordinary, magic vessel it was, though. What an extraordinary, magical man. 

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