This week the world was shocked by the retirement of Andy Murray. It is strange that it came as a surprise given his recent injury woes, but it’s always a shock to see that your heroes are fallible.
I think the attraction of Murray was that success did not come naturally to him. Yes his record is incredible: three grand slam titles; two Olympic Gold medals and a Silver; a Davis Cup winner; ATP World Tour Finals winner; 14 Masters 1000 titles; 11 grand slam finals; a former world number one. But Murray’s achievements are dwarfed by many of his male contemporaries, with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic amassing 51 slams between them.
His talent was immense, yet the titles did not fall at his feet as they did for the other three. Instead we watched him grow from a wiry, awkward teenager, to a powerful veteran of the game, a giant on the circuit. The word ‘great’ is overused in sport, yet when it is applied to Murray it does not seem enough. He might not have the record of his rivals, but Murray’s greatness is in spite of them. He played against the three greatest men ever to play the game, yet managed to do more than compete, and for a time he was the best of them.
There was always an assumption that Murray would win a grand slam one day, especially as he reached his first grand slam final in 2008 aged just 21. Even with defeat to Federer in the final it was assumed Murray’s day would come. Yet as time progressed and he was defeated in more grand slam finals, many began to doubt whether Murray would ever win a major. The public took for granted that a player of Murray’s ability was guaranteed to win a slam, not realising just how much tennis had shifted under the dominance of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal was the undisputed ‘King of Clay’, Federer dominated the grass, and Djokovic reigned in Australia. Even when one of them stumbled, the other two were there to stay dominant. In a normal era winning a slam is an incredible achievement, in the golden era it was almost impossible.
Everything changed for Murray at Wimbledon in the summer of 2012. First came the pain of a four-set defeat to Federer in the Wimbledon final and with it the realisation that he might never break Britain’s grand slam hurt. While Murray may not have won the match, his tears on Centre Court won the hearts of many British fans who had wrongly viewed him as just a dour Scot. This transformation from Scottish sportsman to British icon was complete at the London Olympics. Murray blitzed through the field, defeating Djokovic in the semis, before crushing Federer in the final to bring home gold. He had shown the world, and himself, that he could beat the best and win the biggest prizes in tennis.
From the moment the gold medal was around his neck, Murray was a different player. He beat Djokovic in a five-set thriller at the US Open that year, reached the Australian Open final in 2013, before doing what no British man had managed for 77 years in the summer. On a scorching-hot day in July, Murray was imperious form as he beat Djokovic in a dramatic three sets. For anyone who is not a tennis fan, it is difficult to describe just how momentous an occasion it was. For male British tennis players, it was Everest, and in 2013 Murray reached the summit.
From there he went on to win the Davis Cup for Britain almost singlehandedly in 2015. In 2016 he became the first British man to reach the French Open final, he won Wimbledon again, beat Del Potro in an enthralling four sets to win another Olympic gold and won the ATP World Tour Finals to finish the year as number one.
In men’s tennis’ greatest era, Murray had, for a time, become the best of them.
Despite Murray’s on-court brilliance, his greatest achievements were arguably off-court. While the men’s tour have been effusive in their praise of Murray following his retirement announcement, it pales in comparison to the adulation from the women’s tour. Britain’s Heather Watson paid tribute by saying that ‘I know all of us girls in the locker room are in awe & so grateful for how you always fight in our corner!’. Similar tributes have come from Johanna Konta and Billie Jean King, who praised his commitment to gender equality and equal pay. It is telling how appreciative women in tennis are of a player of Murray’s stature and influence fighting alongside them. Rather than view the women’s tour as competitors for tennis’ riches as some of his male rivals have done, Murray has battled to make sure they get their fair share. On top of this, his unashamed displays of raw emotion have helped normalise male crying and expressing of emotion. Whether it was crying on court, or when discussing the horrors of the Dunblane massacre, Murray, consciously or not, helped tackle toxic masculinity in society. He may have been a great player, but more importantly he is a great man.
With retirement, discussions over Murray’s place in history will inevitably take place. Kyle Edmund has already declared him Britain’s greatest ever tennis player, if not Britain’s greatest ever sportsman. It is difficult to argue with this. In the greatest era of men’s tennis, Murray competed with the top players to ensure it was the ‘big four’ rather than the ‘big three’. He won British hearts, claiming BBC Sport’s Personality of the Year three years out of four, and was even knighted. Not bad for a disliked Scot.
It can only be hoped now the Murray gets the send-off he desires and deserves at Wimbledon this year, and that he is not forced to bow out through injury in Australia. A great player deserves a great end. He will be called many things in retirement: ‘great’; a ‘legend’; a ‘champion’. But the best way to describe him comes from Barry McGuigan. Quite simply, he is ‘the incomparable Andy Murray’.
Thanks for the memories Andy, tennis will be poorer without you.