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Britain’s greatest ever tennis player

• Posted in Tennis • By JoeBaker

The reaction of all those linked with tennis, from players and pundits to media and fans, not to mention numerous famous names from other sports, told you all you needed to know about the career of Andy Murray.

Be it as a powerful voice against sexism in sport, an articulate commentator on the future of British tennis, a mentor for younger players on the Tour or quite simply one of the finest players the game has produced, his legacy will be felt for many years to come.

Such has been his admirable ability to overcome so many obstacles in his fantastic career that we almost universally, and mistakenly, assumed that he would eventually get over the chronic hip injury that had blighted his career since Wimbledon 2017. Hence the great shock when he emotionally announced ahead of the 2019 Australian Open that, at just 31 years of age, and just over two years since he first became World Number 1, he is likely to retire after Wimbledon this year. Or potentially even before then now that he has had a further serious operation that he may not recover from. As someone so committed to squeezing out every ounce of his ability and who still loves the game as much as when he was a junior, it was hard to see Murray accept the fact that this was one battle that he may not be able to win.

It is rare that you see a losing player cheered to the rafters as much as Murray was in his heroic first-round defeat at the season’s first Major, to the severely underrated top 20 player Roberto Bautista-Agut. The match was the perfect metaphor for his career. Many would not even have been able to make it to the court – Murray had made clear that the pain was making it hard to even put his shoes and socks on – but not only did the Scot make it to the Melbourne Arena but he turned it into a classic that showed every characteristic that has made him so admired.

At two sets down, it looked like he would be hobbling meekly into the Melbourne night. Yet, in a way that only the finest players down the years know how, he showed astonishing quality and determination to level at 2-2, only for the fatigue to hit in the final set. For a couple of hours, the glorious ground strokes, soft hands, supreme game management and court coverage were all there and you wondered if this really could be the end. The scenes his comeback created were amongst the most memorable of the tournament. If it does end up being his last match, it will be a fitting one.

It perhaps took the UK public too long to fully appreciate just what Andy Murray was achieving during his career. He emerged from the doldrums of so much British underachievement to not only compete regularly with the top players but become one of the fabled four who dominated the Tour season after season, each driving each other to more stratospheric heights.

From rarely expecting any Brit to be at the latter stages of Slams, it was a surprise to not see Murray there. In total he reached 11 Grand Slam Finals, with his 3 titles involving him becoming Britain’s first Slam Champion in 78 years when he won the US Open in 2012. And who can ever forget that glorious summer’s day in 2013 when, a year after his runners-up tears on Centre Court, he became the first male winner of Wimbledon since 1936? He comprehensively secured another in 2016. The significance of his achievement in winning two Olympic Gold medals shouldn’t be understated, nor the crucial role he played in dragging his country to its first Open era Davis Cup, winning every single one of his matches. Add to the list his ATP World Tour Championship, 39 other Tour titles and 41 weeks as World Number 1 and you can understand why his career is so revered.    

It is easy to disregard what Murray has had to contend with. As a youngster he didn’t have the training facilities of others. Realising the advantage the likes of Nadal and Djokovic were getting, he moved at just 14 to train in Spain, thanks to his parents taking out loans. He had to fight through a debilitating joint issue that almost ended his career before it had even begun, and later was able to return strongly from serious back surgery at the start of the 2013 season. Not many players would have been strong enough mentally to get over 4 straight Grand Slam Final defeats – indeed it is this context that made his triumphs even more special. In fact, few could have coped with the weight of expectation placed on his shoulders from the British public for so long as the country’s sole tennis hope. And of course, there’s the small matter of having to compete with three players with 52 Slams between them – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

On his day, Murray was able to match that trio’s supreme standard. He was simply immense in 2016, winning 9 titles and reaching 3 Slam Finals. If he does retire this year, he’ll be remembered as having one of the best defensive games ever seen, sweeping across the baseline and returning balls many wouldn’t even bother to try and get. Pundits still drool over his backhand, whilst he worked hard to turn his forehand into a potent weapon. The serve could have its shaky moments, but you don’t stay at the top without an extremely effective one. He has proven to be equally solid at the net, with a tremendous shot variety and astute tactical brain that enabled him to drag opponents around as if on a piece of invisible string, conducting matches from the back of the court.

Yet, ultimately, it has been the mental grit, stubbornness and desire to leave everything on the court that has endeared him to so many. The fact winning meant so much – not just for himself but for the fans and British public from whom he’d had to carry so much pressure for so long.

There remains the, admittedly slim, chance that Murray will extend his career and battle on just a little longer. However, if not, we should all appreciate the significance of his career not just for tennis but British sport itself. When he leaves the locker room for the final time he will join those such as Bobby Moore, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Jonny Wilkson in the pantheon of great British sportsmen and women.

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