WATCH—After his five-set loss to Roberto Bautista Agut at the Australian Open, Andy Murray acknowledges the Melbourne crowd:
MELBOURNE—Five words surfaced in the second set. Already down a set versus 22nd-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut, Andy Murray had just been broken to go down 3-2. In that prior game, a flock of birds had let loose with a series of cackles. Though they weren’t vultures, the notion of predators circling a carcass was irresistible.
Last Friday, anguished to the point of tears, Murray had announced that he would retire in 2019—ideally at Wimbledon, but possibly prior, perhaps even after this Australian Open, should his debilitated right hip refuse to cooperate.
“We’re going to lose everybody at some point,” said Roger Federer on Sunday afternoon about Murray’s announced retirement It’s just now that it’s definite.”
Bluntly, we were all on Murray Death Watch.
“I could play another match,” said Murray, “but if I want to try to play again, I want to improve my quality of life, because even if I take four months, I still can’t walk. I’m still in pain doing just basic day-to-day things.”
Then again, the high intensity of competition was a whole other matter.
“Keep your head up, Andy,” came the cry from the stands inside Melbourne Arena, the venue’s utilitarian-looking rectangle of a stadium that on this evening was nearly packed to its capacity of 10,500. It was a hearty cheer, the throaty baritone one often hears from Australians, associated with many of the attributes this gregarious nation cherishes about sports: encouragement, sincerity, camaraderie, tenacity. Leave blood out there, six-time Australian champion Roy Emerson had often said, or don’t bother telling us about it.
We were just over 10,000 miles from Wimbledon, diagonally across the planet from the sacred tennis venue where Murray had earned knighthood. If Murray had appreciated such a regal honor from his homeland, the case could be made that Australia had been a better fit for his unassuming persona. Here in Melbourne, Murray had been liberated from Great Britain’s fishbowl. Back home, he’d been an expected deliverer who eventually became an icon in that pop culture zone, nestled alongside the likes of Elton John and Murray’s fellow Scot, Sean Connery.
“I have genuinely loved playing here,” Murray said of Australia. “The fans love tennis, first and foremost. I think they’re very knowledgeable about the game. They support really well, have created some amazing atmospheres for me and lots of the other players to play in. I’ve had brilliant support here always when I’ve played. There’s a lot of Brits that live here, too.”
In Melbourne, Murray needn’t be Sir Andy. He could simply be that boy who’d carefully dissected each opponent’s playing style, in his teens left home to upgrade his game in Barcelona and, at critical points in his pro career, taken on a rigorous fitness regimen and hired such disparate but valuable coaches as Ivan Lendl and Amelie Mauresmo.
Alas, here also in Melbourne, Murray had lost in the finals an agonizing five times. As philosopher Albert Camus wrote about another frustrated warrior in The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is scarcely any passion without struggle.”
Authenticity is what draws us to sports. The world can be going to heck in a clutch purse; politics, the stock market, aging parents can all exact their toll, but sports persistently offer delight and surprise, a plot line devoid of danger. Authenticity is what Murray had always brought to tennis. From late teens to early 30s, he’d taken the world on a splendid ride, from precocious problem-solver to ambitious prodigy, a muttering but genuine contender and, eventually, a champion for the ages.
Such was also the case that Murray was rarely considered tennis royalty on the scale of Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. But Murray’s position alongside titans doesn’t matter in 2019. Enough for now of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Enough for now of the Big Four, a term I’ve always found more suited to political summit conferences than individual athletes. Having told the world of his impending mortality, from this moment forward, Murray can at last be viewed strictly on his own—three Grand Slam singles titles, two Olympic gold medals, Davis Cup champion, world No. 1 and, more qualitatively, a relentless appetite for work, tactical acumen and the rawness of competition.
Though Murray had lost that second set to go down 6-4, 6-4, he’d maintained fidelity to the Aussie fan’s request to remain positive—a quality he has not always demonstrated. Nine times in his career, Murray had rallied to win from two sets to love down. Unlikely as a tenth was, on this evening in Melbourne, there was no doubting his resolve.
“The atmosphere the whole match was amazing,” said Murray. “I loved it. I’m really appreciative that the people gave me that atmosphere to play in.”
My perch for this match was in the sideline photographer’s pit. Less than 10 yards from Murray, the massive energy he had put into those first two sets was highly visible. Alas, it was also easy to see how the pain of the hip injury had affected Murray’s stride and ability to recover both during and after points. Many a changeover was accompanied by a wince.
From that same spot, I could spot, in seats two rows behind the baseline, Murray’s mother Judy and brother Jamie. On the surface, the two revealed a natural grimness, witnesses to an execution. But beneath the dread of the present, perhaps there was an appreciation for the distance they’d covered, from Scotland to the top of the world.
And what of Bautista Agut? Assigned the task of executioner, the Spaniard was fittingly clad in black, a stone-faced, battle-tested practitioner of contemporary tennis, able to forcefully drive the ball off both sides. Bautista Agut summoned up memories of Benjamin Becker, another unruffled gent who’d been Andre Agassi’s last opponent back at the 2006 US Open. One could imagine Bautista Agut telling the Murrays: Tell Andy it was just business. I always liked him.
But Bautista Agut also possessed a flaw. Like many a contemporary player, he could cut, but he couldn’t kill. Capable of pounding groundstrokes in a rather linear fashion, the Spaniard was scarcely able to take advantage of the openings he frequently created and come forward effectively for volleys. His inability to opportunistically move forward gave Murray enough time and space to hang in rallies, including a critical break-back with Bautista Agut serving at 2-1 in the third.
With Murray serving at 4-all, 30-40, Bautista Agut remained passively stuck to the baseline—and Murray in time struck a crisp backhand down-the-line winner. Wielding his racquet like a tweezer, Murray extricated his way out of the third set, 7-6. Why not a tenth comeback from the ledge? Years ago, Judy had told me the three concepts she told everyone she’d ever coached: Make trouble. Avoid trouble. Get out of trouble. None of her students have ever done that better than Andy.
On serve throughout the entire fourth set, another tiebreaker ensued. Carpe diem were the words spoken by Murray’s racquet as he opened it by winning an 18-ball rally to earn a mini-break and rapidly go up 6-1, and in just over three-and-a-half hours, Murray would play his 35th five-setter (23-11). Dispatch the birds and get on with the tennis. Forget Benjamin Becker. Would Bautista Agut instead become Mikael Pernfors, the good-natured Swede who’d led Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-1, 4-1 at Wimbledon in 1987 and ended up on the short end? Judy and Jamie were elated. The governor had called with a stay of execution.
Not this time. Spent by his comeback, still up against a highly skilled opponent, Murray held for 1-0 and then wilted, most notably missing a facile backhand with Bautista Agut serving at 0-1, 0-30. Bautista Agut won five straight games. The crowd stood on its feet and cheered Murray. Per the Aussie’s cry in the third set, he’d indeed kept his head up. It wouldn’t be enough. In 37 minutes, Bautista Agut had closed out the fifth set to take the match, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-2.
As he faced the press 30 minutes past midnight, Murray remained uncertain if he would have surgery (and risk not being able to play again) or try to tough it out through the pain and eek his way towards Wimbledon.
“I just don’t really know yet,” said Murray. “But, you know, if today was my last match, look, it was a brilliant way to finish, as well. That’s something that I’ll probably take into consideration, as well. It was an amazing atmosphere. I literally gave everything that I had on the court, fought as best as I could, and performed a lot better than what I should have done without the amount I’ve been able to practice and train, you know, whatever. I’d be okay with that being my last match.”
Let’s hope it’s not. Certainly Murray had followed Emerson’s credo. Over the course of four hours and nine minutes, he’d left blood on the court. Victory would have been better. But blood had been plenty.
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