When the words “tactician” or “technician” crop up, the way they do around Andy Murray, who just announced his forthcoming retirement due to chronic hip pain, there’s a whiff of euphemism in the air. Sure, this player is missing that certain oomph, but nevertheless! Even so! Alas! He persisted, and became champion anyway. You might think it’s an odd, oblique form of condescension towards an all-timer made entirely of sinew.
But in Murray’s case it’s easy enough to understand, once you pan out and notice all the freaks in the background. Roger Federer descended sweatless from a champagne-flavored cloud and will likely float back up on it some day. You go to work and across the office is Rafael Nadal, yoked and indomitable, disfiguring the tennis ball with hell spin. Over at the water cooler is Novak Djokovic, basically bringing the same gameplan as you, only he had the good fortune of getting bitten by a radioactive Gumby figurine early in life. And then there’s Murray, with a well-stocked utility belt and a nice brain, entering the fray totally mortal and a little pissy. But to go at the three greatest ever to do it and come away with three majors (including long-awaited homegrown Wimbledon glory), two gold medals, a year-end finals, a raft of masters, months at the world No. 1—there is no euphemism needed for any of that. There’s just the trophy shelf. Andy Murray rose up and did the shit, while hundreds of other triers left empty-handed.
You can tell a cute counterfactual story about what Muzza might’ve done in a less talent-clogged era, a Scottish daydream about double-digit slams and clay success, but that’s not Andy’s story. The point is precisely that he elbowed his way into their cabal, made the Big Three a Big Four. How he did it is half the charm: by flinging himself so faithfully onto the altar of Fitness that his wireframe became cables of ornery muscle; by committing to memory every tic and frailty of his opponents; by change-of-pace and deft hands. Murray dove headfirst into his sport, eating more tape than medically recommended, out of raw curiosity. He knew enough about tennis to find genius within his fixed parameters. He couldn’t always blow you off the baseline with pace, but he could grind away at your imperfections until you cracked. He had a dink for a second serve, but he’d dissect yours on the return. For one of the game’s best-ever returners, any cocky flamethrower was just another puzzle to be solved over a few sets, and the solutions were often more elegant than you’d expect. Most puzzles, it turned out, could be solved by a hearty two-hander, by yelping rabbity movement, by arcing topspin lobs that leapt way out the frame and dove back to kiss the baseline. And, in case of emergency, one of the most ecstatically stupid drop shots ever seen:
The other half of Murray’s charm has very little to do with X’s and O’s, and much to do with the $#%@!. Standing among those three airbrushed demigods and their sound bites and slick suites of signature gear, here was just a dude on a tennis court, unshaven, uncurated, full of vinegar. When I was a teen I read him as a humorless wretch, but years of watching (and a better understanding of my fellow human) revealed a sense of humor drier and dustier than the baseline at the Wimbledon final. It’s by now unmissable: dude is hilarious. At once deadpan, animated, brutally honest where warranted, beloved by fellow players, real smart, openly foul, Murray’s lips seem stuck in a perpetual tragicomic snarl.
With time, Andy’s petulance became just another cherished landmark on the tour. Yeah, there’s my dour goat-like pal, that highly talented piece of gristle, back at it again with the sick backhand. It helped, too, to learn a little more about the actual person holding the racket. To know that he didn’t care at all about the decorum-tier stuff that huffy tennis stewards like to whinge about, and that he cared deeply and obstinately about the stuff that actually mattered.
Do not let it escape your notice that Andy Murray was the top player in the world as recently as August 2017, and is still just 31 years old. In this fresh era of medicine and discipline and not, you know, ripping cigarettes during changeovers, 30 is no expiration date, and greats and journeymen alike have slogged on for seasons more. Murray won’t. The signs were there, even if you (like me) sealed yourself off in denial. The days on court he literally could not move, and said as much. The drawn-out, ominous rehabilitation from hip surgery. The disarming 3:00 a.m. victory tears after what might superficially resemble a routine win.
Yesterday’s press conference was inevitable, but it just happened to land earlier than anticipated, before it was really possible to steel oneself against the reality. With Murray’s future suddenly cut short, I turned back to recent history for small comforts. Back to Wimbledon 2017, his last true run, shot through with visible pain, when the top seed fended off a slew of—to put this politely—all-galaxy weirdos. Dustin Brown, Fabio Fognini, and Benoit Paire comprise a little tennis avant-garde, all caricatures with inscrutable playstyles, all notorious for upset potential. All of them just more puzzles to be solved, so long as you could block out the body’s constant, painful signals to stop. In the quarterfinal, in the fifth set, he was brought to a stop.
That was the one puzzle Murray couldn’t move past, because it wasn’t his to solve; that was one for surgeons and sharp tools. It doesn’t sound like the doctors are up to the challenge, either. “I needed to have an end point because I was sort of playing with no idea when the pain was going to stop,” Murray told reporters yesterday. He said the pain follows him through the everyday, as he puts on his socks, ties his shoes. He’ll get back on court anyway. We’ll watch him try and hack his way through Melbourne, which he concedes might be his last event ever, and then, maybe, a few months more onto London. The hip will hurt. The ending of Andy Murray’s story will be hard to watch, or all too swift, or both. We’ll hurt, too.