Monday, 14 January 2019

So, farewell (perhaps), Andy Murray - quite possibly the finest British sportsman of his era

Normally, I'd have the decency to wait until Sir Andy formally announced his retirement before writing this - but circumstances suggest I'd better just get on with it, and today's loss in an epic five-setter in the first round of the Australian Open to the formidable Spanish player, Robert0 Bautista Agut seems as good an opportunity as any...

...I realise the claim in my headline (even with the qualifier) might seem bold - Britain has, after all, produced a host of great, world-beating sportsmen and women since I first started watching sport as a nipper, many of whom were more eminent than the dour Scot in their chosen field. He only reached the World No.1 spot once, and wasn't there for long: his three-grand slam record looks a bit weedy next to the mass of titles accumulated by his three main rivals: all of the so-called Big Four have a Davis Cup medal on the mantelpiece: they've all reached No. 1 several times, and have spent far longer there:  in fact, the only area in which Murray clearly bests his rivals is Olympic singles gold medals - two to him, one to Nadal, and none to Federer or Djokovic. Murray was undoubtedly the junior member of the quartet of contemporary greats.

And yet I still reckon his achievements match those of any other British sportsman, if only because of what he had to overcome to attain them. First, he had behavioural and psychological "issues", including a tendency to drama-queeniness; getting down on himself when things weren't going perfectly; a sulky disposition; an ability to alienate spectators - even those who had come to support him; initial physical scrawniness; unattractive explosions of temperament; and forever turning matches that should have been won in three quick sets into endless, draining battles of will (this happened so often, one began to wonder whether, due to something perverse in the Scottish psyche, he wasn't deliberately manufacturing crises in order to test his ability to overcome them.).

On the other hand, he somehow managed to keep within range of three of the best half dozen players ever to pick up a racket, one of whom just happened to be the best tennis player of all time. He never "tanked" - i.e. never threw in the sponge, even when things were at their bleakest. He refused to blame the gods for his coming of age in the finest era in the history of men's tennis. Rather than just being a home-advantage grass-court specialist, he thrived on hard courts, and would, given time and fewer injuries, have mastered clay. He went through the pain of remoulding his body to meet the crippling strength and stamina demands of the modern game (and I believe he did it all perfectly legally). He (almost) overcame a seemingly intractable habit of retreating into a defensive shell at every opportunity, when attack would often have yielded better results.

Of the big four, he was the only one who occasionally managed to match Federer for sheer, unadulterated genius - whereas Djokovic and Nadal have triumphed by playing the expected shots better than most of their rivals, Federer and Murray have consistently produce utterly unexpected shots which no one else would even have thought off (which is why true tennis lovers so enjoy  watching them play). Despite appearing to be the ultimate selfish, lone-wolf operator, representing his country as part of a team revealed Murray to be a genuine team player, quick to credit others, and evidently relishing the opportunity to make sacrifices for the group (at the same time, revealing himself to be super-patriotic). Despite being derangedly competitive, he evidently found it easy to form friendships with other tour players - his closeness to Djokovic cooled (not Murray's fault, I suspect) but his liking for Nadal is evident, and he long ago overcome early mutual antipathy between himself and Del Potro (who seems a good bloke, I must say). Rather than solely relying on his counter-punching abilities and his two-fisted backhand, he worked up the other aspects of his game (in particular, his fairly dreadful second serve) so that he leaves the game with no glaring weaknesses. His endless, punishing exercise schedule not only gave him strength and stamina, it turned him into one of the fastest players, who, despite having perhaps over-developed his leg muscles, was able to reach balls that only Djokovic would even have thought of going for.

All of the above meant that he not only became the best he could be - he became better than, I suspect, anyone but Murray imagined he could be. In practically any other era, he'd have won somewhere between six and ten slams: but, then, without his great rivals presenting him with an endless series of goals and challenges, would he have pushed himself quite that hard? Doubt it. (The same argument applies, of course, to his main rivals.)

Murray wasn't always easy to watch - it was often a draining experience, especially following his mad, wildly improbably, but ultimately successful battle to overhaul Djokovic in the race to the No. 1 spot in 2016 - the extraordinary  feat which, I suspect, did more than anything else to curtail his career. But, despite his often repellent on-court antics, he achieved all this without cheating, either overtly or covertly. Respect! And he did it with hardly any help - especially in the early days - from that peculiarly useless, counter-productive entity, the British tennis establishment, which, had he and his mother not largely ignored it, would no doubt have turned him into yet another petulant, low-achieving also-ran.

Instead, the Murrays went their own way, and, in the process, the surly teenage brat morphed - for my money - into the finest British sportsman of his generation. Tennis has meant a lot to me - watching it has given me more pleasure (and pain) than any sport - and Andy Murray's mighty struggle to reach the pinnacle of his chosen field has been one of the most impressive sports feats I've ever witnessed. My thanks to him for the pleasure, the tears of happiness - and, yes - all the sheer bloody angst. I wish him success in whatever he decides to do next (I'm guessing it won't be stand-up comedy).

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