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December 15 2019
Celebrating Andy Murray, the misfit in the Big Four universe
19 January 2019

Andy Murray may not have been the best male player of his era, but he has a strong case for being considered the most significant

History has witnessed the fall of several empires. For some, the collapse is quick. For others, it is slow but sure. There is no single moment of ultimate doom. The pieces fall one by one. The winds keep shifting and stronger forces threaten to take over.

The Big Four in tennis is an empire. Seldom has a quartet dominated the sport in such emphatic fashion: from 2005 to 2016, men’s tennis contested 48 Grand Slam tournaments; 46 had at least one of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the final, and 30 had two of them; 42 had a Big Four winner.

Over the last few years, the Big Four empire has been through its own epoch of uncertainty. There was a spreading realisation that what was once an indestructible colossus is now something else. There were supposed chinks in its armour. It received its most defining blow yet at the Australian Open this year, when a tearful and injury-plagued Murray announced he was going to retire.

Seldom has any tennis player had to carry the weight of expectation in a way that Murray has. And seldom has anyone’s path to triumph been subjected to quite so much failure, scrutiny and criticism.

Persona non grata

At the 2010 Australian Open, Murray, in only his second appearance in a Grand Slam final, lost to Federer in straight sets. It was possibly the first time any crowd saw him lose his stiff upper lip, well before the 2012 Wimbledon final. Fighting back tears, Murray quipped with a sardonic smile, “I can cry like Roger, it’s just a shame I can’t play like him.”

Murray has always been considered a misfit, a persona non grata in the Big Four universe. He does not have the grace of Federer, the grinding endurance of Nadal or the physics-defying techniques of Djokovic. Perhaps his body of work — two Wimbledon triumphs, a U.S. Open victory, two Olympic gold medals, a Davis Cup win, 45 career titles and the World No. 1 ranking — would have been celebrated more in a different era.

But this is precisely why there’s plenty to admire about his pursuit of success, being ‘a human in the land of Gods’. Murray winning means Murray working. He switches angles and spins several times within a rally, he runs down every dying drop shot. He grinds out points, he grimaces. He charges at rallies, he chunters away in agony.

His game is relentlessly physical as much as it is tactical. Writer Mark Hodgkinson notes in his book Andy Murray, Wimbledon Champion that when Murray appeared at his first Wimbledon in 2005, he was the skinniest, gawkiest kid on the tennis block. During his peak he was one of the fastest and fittest on tour with ‘a body like a machine.’

But his style, coupled with a complete surrender to a strict fitness regimen, meant he was putting his body through unreasonable demands. His right hip had been bothering him for years and he underwent back surgery in 2013.

Time magazine once described his tennis as ‘a concerto of arrhythmic disharmony.’ Proof of that came during his clash against Roberto Bautista Agut this year in what could possibly have been his last match ever. There were moments of drama and frustration, moments of utter brilliance and defiance: a reminder of all the things that have made his game so memorable.

When asked about Murray, former player and current coach Raemon Sluiter told Eurosport that he had “nothing against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, but Murray to me is the purest of them all. With him, what you see is what you get. The other three are very well aware of their surroundings. Murray is himself in every moment.”

Enduring legacy

Following the news of his impending retirement, Wimbledon announced that it would instate a statue of him on the hallowed lawns of the All England Club. It was there that he accomplished the one thing that was expected, even demanded, of him as a Brit.

But Murray’s enduring legacy will not be one of a figurine next to Fred Perry’s, but more about what he has achieved outside the court. Billie Jean King, in her congratulatory tweet, implored him to “remember that your greatest impact on the world may be yet to come”.

Murray has long been an outspoken proponent of the women’s game. This side of him stretches right from the casual — praising Agnieszka Radwanska’s style, wanting to play against Serena Williams — to the more pressing — how women should be paid equal across all tournaments and how the men should be working not just for the men’s game, but the men’s and women’s games. He was World No. 1 only in 2016, but he was tennis patriarchy’s No. 1 internal critic well before that.

He was the only top men’s player who hired a woman, Amelie Mauresmo, to be his coach, in 2014. The move was met with rolled eyes and scoffing criticisms. Every failure of his was laid at Mauresmo’s feet, every success ignored. Murray, who had been coached by his mum Judy as a kid, said he found it shocking. In his blog he wrote, “Have I become a feminist? Well, if being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man, then yes, I suppose I have.”

Two years ago, during what can be seen now as his last run, he corrected a journalist who said Sam Querrey was the first American since 2009 to reach a Grand Slam semifinal. “Male player,” he interjected. The rest of the press conference room erupted in chuckles, but Murray barely cracked a smile. Tennis magazine wrote of him: “He may not be the best player of this generation, but is the most important one.”

As Murray is being garlanded for his many achievements in the upcoming weeks, it would do well to remember him as a man who has constantly battled to find his own way despite the crushing weight around him and, in the process, reshaped the game forever, on- and off-court.

 

 

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