I have a confession to make.
Ever since earlier this week – on the eve of the Australian Open – Andy Murray made his not altogether unexpected but nevertheless shock announcement that the chronic hip condition he has been suffering from these past two years had almost certainly brought him to the verge of retirement from top class tennis at the relatively young age of thirty-one, I have been somewhat conflicted in my reaction.
There is no doubt that the Scot from Dunblane – which sadly will always be associated with the school shooting massacre of 16 children and a teacher by Thomas Hamilton on 13th March 1996 that Murray and his brother Jamie, then aged eight and ten, survived – is the greatest tennis player that Britain has produced in the last eighty years.
[I am not going to reheat a list of his Major titles and host of other achievements here because they have already been repeated ad nauseam in the several hundred ‘appreciations’ of his career that have littered the UK media outlets since Monday].
Nobody could deny that.
Going back over my lifetime – I’m thinking of the likes of Mike Sangster, Buster Mottram, Stephen Warboys, Andrew Castle, Bobby Wilson, Roger Taylor et al. – this country has seemingly specialised in producing players either with promise who somehow never ‘trained on’ and/or those who were never quite top drawer but otherwise ticked all the other boxes that Britain traditionally likes in its sporting heroes, e.g. respect for tradition, being a good loser, going down gallantly after offering a stout resistance and, of course, being adept at attracting support/sympathy from the home crowd at Wimbledon every year.
Forget the Harry Enfield comic character ‘Tim Nice-But-Dim’ …
In British tennis’s case, step forward please perennial Nearly Man loser ‘Nice-but-Tim’ Henman who, having made a speciality of going out in the Quarter or Semi Final of the Wimbledon Men’s Singles tournament, achieved iconic status by having his name ironically and informally attached to the mound in the grounds of the Wimbledon grounds on which members of the public could sit and watch giant TV screens of proceedings on its show courts.
Only Britain and only Wimbledon could take the absurd step of then actually renaming said hillock Henman Hill!
(But I digress).
Andy Murray, at the very least, was the antithesis of the ‘plucky Brit loser’ tradition.
When he first appeared on the public awareness spectrum as a lanky, spotty, surly, ill-at-ease-with-the-media teenager with attitude (albeit clearly a talented one) on the face of it his backstory – beginning with the 1996 catastrophe and continuing with his deliberate exit from the British tennis youth development system in order to try his luck in Spain – was an attractive one.
His initial trouble was that his ‘attitude’ came with the territory for someone who had emerged through the ranks the hard way – it was part of his persona, part of what gave him his competitive edge.
As many of this week’s Murray ‘career appreciations’ have detailed [I hesitate to refer to them as ‘obituaries’ although I’d argue that de facto that is what they amount to because most sports stars’ careers last only until the reflexes and energies of youth, progressively dulled by Time, finally prevent the individual from ‘cutting it’ at the highest level any more], the mainstream British public took a while to warm to him precisely because of their preference for their idols to be humble, polite, responsible, respectful – in summary, paragons of virtue as per countless ‘stiff-upper-lipped’ Brits in movies and theatre over the previous seventy-five years.
His infamous quip, when asked which country he’d support in any FIFA World Cup for which Scotland failed to qualify (“Anyone but England …”), whilst perhaps honest, was almost certainly intended only as a wry humorous dig at those south of the border but it landed him in a large bucket of hot water which took several years of on-court graft and success, plus a little media training along the way, to extricate himself from.
Personally – for all his hard work, perseverance and superb play – I never quite warmed to Murray.
Perhaps I’m old-fashioned and therefore this is my cross to bear not his – but I could never quite get over the regular on-court tantrums, the shouting at his backroom team in the stands and (when it came to it) his propensity to weep or blub.
Some of a more maternal type than I perhaps found in his tears a prompt for sympathy and a sense of their ‘heart going out’ to him in his hour of stress and dejection.
For me, the attitudes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovich – ‘taking reverses on the chin’ and being unfailingly charming, generous and gracious whether in victory or defeat – were more to be admired and respected.
They appeared effortlessly classy whereas Murray began with a spoilt brat demeanour that he could not hide: it took him five years and more to mature and reach ‘national treasure’ status in this respect.
And to finish today, a comment on sporting injuries generally.
The constant intensity of the training and playing regimes of world class sportsmen and women have always imposed excessive strains upon their bodies. It was the case in the late 19th Century and it remains so in 2019, albeit that modern medical and sporting fitness, nutrition and conditioning knowledge and applications have taken what the human body can endure and benefit from to places that would have seemed science fiction to anyone competing in the first modern Olympic Games at Athens in 1896.
However, elite sporting careers are very short. Murray has been competing in Men’s Tennis since he was 17 or 18 – and to have played at the top, or near it, for more than a decade is both a major achievement in itself and extremely lucky.
Some female swimmers and gymnasts are ‘finished’ at 22 or 23, when their flexibility begins to wane. I read somewhere that the average rugby union Premiership career is no more than three and a half seasons.
In days of yore I heard a tale of how football great, Liverpool hard man Tommy Smith, used to have to massage his legs and knees for twenty minutes and more, simply to be able to get out of bed and downstairs for his breakfast – and this within five years of retiring in his mid-to-late thirties.
My point is this. It is only to be expected that those who are ever lucky enough to have be born with a world class talent for any sport would gladly trade a post-retirement life (however long that might be) spent in near crippledom and/or constant pain in return for the chance to have five, never mind ten, years competing in the very top events and/or matches to which their sporting talent – if fulfilled – could take them.
I know I would have.
So maybe we should be grateful that Andy Murray had the talent, grit, determination and will to spend more than ten years at the highest level of professional tennis. He did enough in that time to achieve for himself an immortal place in British sporting history.
Good luck to him. He will now be a well-respected man in his chosen walk of life for the remainder of his years and I’m sure will make a mark in tennis development, administration or media work. If he wants to.