Jan 24, 2023
The thing that often amazes us about elite sportspeople is how they make their chosen sport look like the easiest thing in the world. Whether it’s been the effortless grace of Roger Federer’s groundstrokes, or the movement and flexibility of Novak Djokovic, with his rubber-like limbs allowing him to slide and glide across the court in ways human flesh is surely not designed to. Andy Murray is a different kind of athlete from those aforementioned two, he instead regularly makes tennis look like the hardest profession in the world. He makes it exhausting to watch, let alone play. He looks like a physical wreck, sweat-soaked, doubled over audibly panting for breath, then he resets and resumes play for another couple of hours. I saw Murray described the other day as always being the most ‘human’ of the superhuman big 4 who once ruled their field together. That is for sure an understatement.
As the world responded to Murray’s displays in the 2023 Australian Open, words such as ‘warrior’ and ‘gladiator’ came up a lot. And there is something almost gladiatorial about the way Murray is willing to suffer for the crowds’ entertainment. He invites the audience to endure with him, and to his opponent, he says “I’m willing to put my body through hell to win, are you? Let’s find out. Let’s see who can endure this for longer.” For around a decade, Murray has tested his opponents’ mental and physical willpower, and for much of that decade only 3 men could last with him, the 3 men we all know. The rest would inevitably wilt, and buckle as Murray’s unbreakable will and spirit would eventually break them down. They were facing a man who refused to lose or more accurately refused to stop giving 100% of himself to every point.
In some ways, the 3 matches Andy Murray played at this year’s Australian Open could encapsulate his entire career. Murray first faced Matteo Berrettini, a monster server who had won his last 3 encounters with the Scot. This didn’t stop Murray from getting into a commanding position by winning the first 2 sets. However, Berrettini had not exited at the first round stage of a slam for four years and would not go quietly into the night. Murray saw a 4th set go away from him in a tiebreak to take the match into a decisive 5th. Andy was on the verge of losing for just the second time in his career from 2 sets up when Berrettini brought up but then squandered match point on Murray’s service game. Instead, the match was decided by a 10-point tie-break, with the Italian looking to reach double figures for consecutive tie-breaks won. Instead, it was the 35-year-old who outlasted his 26-year-old opponent in 4 hours and 49 minutes. It was a significant victory for Murray, his first win in the best-of-5 format over an opponent ranked in the top 20 since he first left the tour in 2017. The 13th seed Berrettini had reached the semi-finals at the previous year’s Australian Open and had made it to at least the Quarters in his last 5 majors.
Murray was being brought back down to earth just days later as he took to the court against home favourite Thanasi Kokkinakis. The Australian served big from the off and was in danger of hitting Murray off the court and out of the tournament. He took the second set tie-break and put Andy on the brink of exit, needing just one more set for victory. But before bowing out Murray would give us one more vintage moment, however. Already a breakdown at the start of the 3rd set Andy played a point that maybe no other player in the history of the sport could win. If that sounds bold, bear with me. Kokkinakis quickly got into a position where he was forcing Andy to scurry from one end of the court to the other as the Aussie pummelled the ball into the corners. Murray, stretching every sinew, groaning with the effort continually retrieved the ball only to be sent on another wild goose chase by Kokkinakis’ racquet.
But Kokkinakis could not for the life of him finish the point, though Murray could do no more than offer the ball up for not one, not two, but three successive overheads, the Aussie remained unable to put any of them away, Murray retrieved them all. He was then able to somehow scoop a return from way behind his baseline so deep that it sent Kokkinakis back to his own baseline. With this shot, Murray had made the point neutral again and it was his opponent who blinked first hitting into the net. Kokkinakis threw his racquet at the floor in disgust, Murray cupped and pointed at his ear theatrically as though an away footballer taunting the home crowd after scoring a goal, but there was no booing or jeering here, the crowd roared as if Murray had been born in Sydney. They’d witnessed a special point, and they knew it. “Midnight Madness in Melbourne!” exclaimed Mark Petchey as Murray broke back for 1-2 in the third.
For most people, even for most tennis players, desperately hunting down the ball when you know the only option is to lift it into the air for your opponent to smash once again isn’t exactly fun, but for Murray, that’s exactly what it is, he’s always been a born defender, the man for chasing down lost causes and delaying the inevitable. And even whilst down two sets and two games in the third, the idea of him accepting the point was lost and losing enthusiasm for the fight was never going to happen. He got his reward. But it seemingly would be little more than a consolation prize, Murray wins the point of the match, and Kokkinakis wins the actual match as a 5-2 lead put him a game away from straight sets victory.
After the highs of beating Berrettini it was to be a disappointing loss against the 69th ranked player in the world, but not an altogether unexpected one after the tribulations Murray went through in the first round, and being out on the court for nearly 5 hours. Murray fans worldwide accepted it, a straight sets loss. There were positives and nice memories to take from the Berrettini win, but he was no longer a player capable of following up a great win with another win in the Best of 5 sets format. Kokkinakis leads 5-3 on serve, he’s two points from victory. But hang on, Murray breaks! he’s stubbornly delaying his exit, for as long as he can. He holds for 5-5 and shortly after we’re in a tiebreak. This time it’s the Scot who wins it, and all of a sudden this match looks a whole lot different. Something is happening here..
The momentum is suddenly all Murray’s and after being pegged back from 2-0 up in his last match and dragged into a 5th, this time it’s Murray doing it to his opponent. As he takes the fourth, it starts to feel inevitable, we’ve been here before. He’s smelt blood, and Kokkinakis is not doing a lot wrong, but it’s like he’s trapped in a Hollywood movie script, like Apollo Creed or Ivan Drago. He’s now there for one reason: to be the victim vanquished against all odds by our stories hero.
Even though all logic suggests that a 35-year-old man with one hip, who’s been out on the court for nearly 10 hours should be outlasted by a man 9 years his junior, all logic has been momentarily suspended, perhaps highlighted by Murray being denied the use of the toilet, having used all his allotted bathroom breaks. With logic defied, Murray would be writing the latest in his series of Rocky-Esque scripts. After 5 hours and 45 minutes, Andy Murray was victorious at 4:05 AM in Melbourne morning. Hearing the roar you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d just won his 3rd Wimbledon title in front of his home fans, no instead Murray had beaten an Australian in Australia, to reach just the 3rd round. That’s how affecting and inspiring Murray’s fightback was, Australians love being Australian, but sports-mad people that they are, they love the drama and emotion sport invokes even more.
After the match, Murray said: “It was unbelievable that I managed to turn that around. Thanasi was serving unbelievably, hitting his forehand huge and I don’t know how I managed to get through it. I did start playing better as the match went on – and yes, I have a big heart.” Murray went on to mention a stat which must give him immense satisfaction, he now holds the record outright for most comebacks from 2 sets behind, moving ahead of legends Roger Federer and Boris Becker. Murray has now done it 11 times, 11 times and he still surprises us. 11 times and we still find ourselves writing him off, saying no, not even *he* can come back from this, and yet he did. The record proves a vindication of all the thousands of hours he’s given to tennis in his career, working on the physical and mental sides of the game, which has helped take him to a level where he will always back himself to win in these situations. Kokkinakis hit 37 aces in the match, a total of 101 winners and it still wasn’t enough, it was never going to be enough.
The Scot’s draw was not going to get any easier, as in the 3rd round he faced Roberto Bautista Agut, a man who had beaten Murray twice in the previous year, losing just six games in the process. The win over Kokkinakis was the longest match of Murray’s career and it took his time on the court to over 10 and a half hours. It looked for a time that after 2 long brutal matches, Murray’s third was in danger of being over brutally quickly. Appearing stiff and too exhausted to move, Murray was a set down in 29 minutes, winning just the solitary game. He went an early breakdown in the second set too, but the crowd wanted their own experience of Murray’s magic, they willed him back into the match, roaring at his every point, trying to feed their energy into his muscles to push them on. Andy broke back and took the set into a tiebreak, a tiebreak he trailed 2-5. Extraordinarily he then reeled off 5 straight points to level the match. Surely it wasn’t happening again..
It wasn’t. At this stage, even Murray ran out of magic, but he went down the only way he knows how, the only way he can tolerate which is whilst still battling and still believing, losing the 3rd and 4th sets 3-6 and 4-6 respectively. Following his exit from the tournament Murray said: “I feel like I gave everything that I had to this event. So I’m proud of that. That is really, in whatever you’re doing, all you can do. You can’t always control the outcome. You can’t control how well you’re going to play or the result. You can control the effort that you put into it, and I gave everything that I had the last three matches.” Athletes such as Lionel Messi and Novak Djokovic show us what life would be like if we were extraordinarily gifted, and Andy Murray shows us what a human looks like who truly gives his all. He makes you wonder what could be achieved if you truly committed every fibre of your being towards something, without wondering what you’ll get out of it, without worrying about what lies at the end, whether it’s even worth trying. For him trying is the point, that’s the reward in itself, knowing you couldn’t have given more.
A word has been added to the tennis vocabulary and that word is “Murray-coaster” to describe the up-and-down nature of a Murray match. And truly there has probably never been an athlete who goes through so many emotions so rapidly and all of them are shared with the audience in real-time. It’s what makes Murray, still now when he hasn’t reached the last 16 of a slam for over 5 years, one of the most watchable and engaging athletes on the planet. He wins a point, he’s fist-pumping manically, looking into the faces of spectators in the crowd cajoling them to give him even more encouragement, louder, please. With that Murray’s legs are filled with life, he’s bouncing on them despite the endless hours of match-play. His whole body looks filled with vitality and belief. Then he immediately plays a poor point, his shoulders slump, he limps back into position, and he receives the ball from the ball kid like it’s a form of torture to have to go on playing. He loses a long point, he’s leaning down using his racquet to rest, panting for air, he may find time to curse himself or shout something sarcastic to his box. He wins the next point, the crowd roars its approval, Murray is now encouraging himself “C’mon!”, it’s still only 30 all.
Murray’s attention at one stage in the Bautista Agut match was captured by a woman seemingly drinking quite heavily. This as we’ve seen recently from Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon and Djokovic at this Australian Open, is usually a problem for tennis players. Murray takes a different approach, after winning a game he gestures a pint glass to his lips and encourages the woman to go and get another drink. Murray a man accused throughout his career of not having a personality due to having a somewhat dour voice, shows more personality on the court than practically anyone. You feel you know him better from his on-court persona than virtually anyone else. Murray himself said it best after the Kokkinakis match: “I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, and shown my emotions. I’ve been criticised a lot for it over the years, but that’s who I am.”
“Murraycoaster” can be used not just to define Murray’s matches, but also his career as a whole. He becomes just the second man to lose his first 4 Grand Slam finals, there is the heartfelt, emotional speech after falling short against Roger Federer at Wimbledon. Then suddenly come to the highs, he wins Olympic Gold avenging the loss to Federer, he wins his first Major at Flushing Meadows outlasting the Marathon man himself Novak Djokovic, then beats him again to win the one all Brits wanted over any other, and he’s Wimbledon Champion. Then there are injury problems, only 1 major final in the next 2 years, but then comes the best year of his career 2016, Murray reaches 3 major finals, wins his second Wimbledon title, and becomes the first singles player to win 2 Olympic Golds and becomes year-end number 1. Now after the greatest high, comes the lowest low, Murray is suffering badly with his hip, in so much pain he feels retirement is the only option, though he struggles to even say a word at the 2019 Australian Open, so badly does he want to play on. And play on he does, this time with a metal hip, but it isn’t like before, wins are fewer and further between. The Australian Open has brought him closer to having one last high, one last deep run in a slam, and though this wasn’t to be the time, you feel he won’t stop trying until he gets there again.
Andy Murray at the peak of his powers was one of the best defenders and returners the game has ever seen, his ability to read serves and his extraordinary hand-eye coordination would see him regularly make some of the biggest servers the game has ever seen look redundant. He would take your weapons and use them against you, the big hitters would see their power neutralised and feel the need to keep hitting bigger and bigger until they were over-hitting and sending it long, he forced those mistakes out of your game. He would take you into long rallies and with clean and precise hitting carve out a high IQ point, where he would know the angles on the court better than the opponent, and either work the point to a stage he could hit a brilliant winner or wait for the error to come from the other end. His brand of tennis saw him reach 21 Grand Slam semi-finals, going onto the final 11 times, in Men’s tennis’ strongest ever era.
Multiple factors such as his time side-lined off the court and as well being the first player to ever compete in singles tennis with a metal hip have meant that the Murray of today isn’t that same player. He loses more, he loses to average players, players who in his prime he would beat in straight sets now do the same to him. Much of what made Murray the number 1 player in the world 7 years ago is no longer part of his game. The serve is rarely what it was, the movement is hampered, and the speed of his reaction’s not what they were. So what is Murray left with? he’s left with the same dogged determination and hunger for the fight which once saw him climb to the very top of the rankings ahead of the 3 greatest men to ever hold a racquet, he’s left with the same passion and love for the game he’s played for over 30 years, a love that saw him reject doctors’ verdicts that he could never return to professional sport with a metal hip and that same unquenchable thirst to win the next point. How far that will take him in the remaining years of his career remains to be seen, yet one thing is certain, Andy Murray won’t be writing himself off.