Announcing his retirement, Andy Murray begins to get his due at last

Announcing his retirement, Andy Murray begins to get his due at last

ANDY MURRAY was the last member of the vaunted “Big Four” of men’s tennis to emerge as an all-time great. On January 10th he announced that he would also become the first to exit the stage. At a press conference ahead of the Australian Open, Mr Murray said that he aims to retire this summer at Wimbledon, the scene of his greatest triumphs. The 31-year-old’s right hip, which has been troubling him for years and for which he underwent surgery one year ago, has severely limited his ability to train and compete. The pain is bad enough that he may not even last another six months: he could call it quits as soon as he finishes play at the Australian Open, where his first match will be held on January 14th.

Mr Murray, a native of Dunblane, Scotland, looms large in British sport. In 2012 he won the gold medal in the singles tennis event at the London Olympics, then came back to Wimbledon the following year and became the first male Briton to win that title since 1936. In 2015, he led the British team to the Davis Cup title—also a first since 1936—winning all 11 matches he played in that event, including three doubles matches partnering with his brother Jamie. The following year, after winning Wimbledon a second time, he successfully defended his gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, becoming the first player of either sex to win multiple singles gold medals. Later that season, he finally overcame Novak Djokovic, his long-time rival, to achieve the world’s official number-one ranking, becoming the first British man in the Open era to sit atop the table. For all of this, he was granted a knighthood in the 2017 New Year Honours.

Such a list of accomplishments makes an open-and-shut case for Mr Murray’s place in the tennis Hall of Fame, but it fails to tell the whole story. The Scotsman assembled his stunning resume despite playing in the most competitive era in men’s tennis history, often contesting his important matches against three of the greatest players of all time: Mr Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Before Mr Murray’s breakthrough in 2012, he was little more than the junior member of the big four, and he holds the record for most weeks in fourth place in the world rankings, having spent almost four years in that position. Nearly one-third of his career losses came against those three rivals; he won 83% of his matches against the rest of the field.

That he did not have a signature weapon like Mr Federer’s deadly serve, Mr Nadal’s bruising topspin, or Mr Djokovic’s physics-defying backhand meant that his style was more of an acquired taste. Combining speed, resourcefulness, and intensity with superior tactical intelligence, Mr Murray held his own with his rivals, even on their preferred surfaces. He is the only player to have defeated Mr Federer in a grass-court final, Mr Djokovic in a hard-court final and Mr Nadal in a clay court final. Early in his career, he struggled on the dirt, but it is another example of his doggedness that he eventually defeated Mr Nadal twice on the surface (one of only seven players to do so) and reached the 2016 Roland Garros title match. His cross-surface prowess resulted in another remarkable feat, becoming one of only three men (alongside his former coach Ivan Lendl and Mr Federer) to have finished as the runner-up at all four majors.

So yes, Mr Murray was often the groomsman, rarely the groom. Fans will argue for decades over which of his three rivals was the greatest of all time, while even the most patriotic Brit will hesitate to throw Mr Murray’s name in the ring. Yet because of the quality of his competition, it is easy to underrate the career on which Mr Murray is calling time. Several of his tallies at the grand slams rank among the top ten in the modern era, including his 11 finals, 21 semi-finals, 30 quarter-finals, and 189 match wins. Only nine other men have spent more time in the top five of the world rankings. His three major titles sit much further down the all-time list, but the rest of the big four blocked him from at least six more. Comparing tennis players across eras is devilishly difficult, thanks to changes in technology, tactics, training regimens, and geographical breadth, but these raw totals probably underrate his standing among the all-time greats. He doesn’t belong in the top three, but few men other than his present-day rivals can unambiguously claim to have been stronger players.

Mr Murray’s decision to cut his career short is particularly unfortunate, because it was only midway through his career that fans truly embraced him. The high-profile titles helped, as did his mordant wit and obvious passion for the sport. A rarity among the game’s leading figures, he takes to social media to comment live on obscure matches or deliver snarky responses to trolls on Twitter. More important, he is one of the few male players to speak out for gender equality, or even to acknowledge the women’s game at all. In 2014, he made history by appointing Amelie Mauresmo, a former top-ranked woman, as his coach—an unprecedented move in a sport where retired men frequently coach women, but it is virtually never the other way around.

Luckily, many of the qualities that have made Mr Murray a belatedly beloved figure won’t disappear when he steps off the court. Despite career prize money earnings in excess of $60m (another category in which he holds fourth place), it is difficult to imagine him walking away from the game entirely. He would be a gem in the commentary booth, an asset on any coaching staff and an inspirational force for grass-roots development of British tennis, following in the footsteps of his mother Judy. In the small world of elite tennis, he could do all three. Mr Murray revitalized British tennis as a player, and he has the potential to do even more in retirement.

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