WATCH: Players leave video messages to a retiring Andy Murray:
Andy Murray went out at the Australian Open the way he came in: by pushing a Spanish opponent to the limit, and thrilling an appreciative crowd, before eventually falling in five sets.
I can still vividly remember waking up in the early morning dark to watch Murray surprise and deceive, and nearly beat, Rafael Nadal in their first meeting in Melbourne in January 2007. The 19-year-old Scot lost to Rafa that night, but not before showing the world that he was a top-level talent, with a creative, original playing style and the tenacity and ambition to make that talent mean something. A future Grand Slam champion was born, and the age of the Big Four had begun.
Twelve years later, with Murray’s similarly gallant five-set loss to Roberto Bautista Agut, it may have ended. By any historical measure, this generation of male players has been around for a long time. But suddenly it feels as if their era is ending far too soon.
“Big Four” has always been a disputed term. Many think Murray doesn’t deserve to be placed alongside his rivals and colleagues Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Nadal. And it’s true, he can’t compete with them in terms of major titles won, and he’ll wind up well behind them in any list of all-time greatest players. But Murray’s consistency over the last decade, and the breadth of his accomplishment, put him in their league. He did everything he could reasonably have set out to do, and a lot of things that no other man from his country could do. He was the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon. He led Great Britain to its first Davis Cup title in 76 years. He was the first British man to reach No. 1 in the ATP rankings and finish a season No. 1. And like Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, he took on the challenge of becoming an all-surface player, and reached a French Open final. Murray was Big.
There will be more chances to talk about Murray’s game and on-court career. For today, I want to write about what made him significant and unique off the court, and what he taught male athletes, even if many were reluctant to learn from his example.
In 2016, I wrote an article for Tennis Magazine speculating that Murray might end up being the most important player of his generation. This was the period just after the 2015 women’s World Cup, when, for the length of a summer, the members of the winning U.S. team were the biggest sports stars in America. It felt like a gender-politics breakthrough that might prove permanent, and it was one that Murray happened to be embodying in tennis at the same time.
For years, he had been the only prominent ATP player to take an active interest in the women’s game. Early in his career he praised Agnieszka Radwanska’s playing style, predicted that Caroline Garcia would become No. 1 and said he like watching the WTA. None of those things might seem especially ground-breaking or notable, except that in pro tennis, they were. The two tours traveled the world together for much of the year, but the prevailing attitude on the ATP side had always been that you shouldn’t try to compare the men’s and women’s games, and that you certainly shouldn’t pay them the same amount of money. The women, in short, weren’t as good.
Murray, whose mother was his first coach, and who has never been afraid to carve out his own path, was the first male player I know of—and maybe the first male athlete anywhere—to put the women’s game on a par with the men’s, to talk about women as if they really were playing the same sport. In 2015, he took the next step in his feminist awakening by hiring Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. In 2016, in the midst of yet another sport-wide argument over equal pay, Murray made his boldest statement yet, when he sat down at a table full of reporters in Miami and said, “I think there should be equal pay, 100 percent, at all combined events.”
I can remember being shocked, pleasantly, by Murray’s words that afternoon. Their clarity cut through all of the evasions and excuses that normally constitute the equal-pay debate. In Murray’s mind, the men’s and women’s games were of equal value, and that was all there was to it.
Why was this seemingly simple assertion of gender equality such a shock? Because it went completely against the grain of male solidarity, of the jock fraternity. As anyone who has played on an all-male sports team can tell you, it can be tough to fight against a chauvinist tide by yourself. That must have been doubly true within the ATP, where many of the players believe that to pay the women equally is to take money out of their own pockets. There’s a reason Murray was one of the few to go against that grain. It takes guts, and a willingness to be scorned by some of your peers.
There were players who disagreed with Murray, and others who must have resented him. But as the recent testaments from his fellow players show, Murray was still a popular and respected figure on the men’s tour. He made fast friends with the new generation’s resident bad boy, Nick Kyrgios. He traded barbed banter with his coach, Ivan Lendl, who no one has ever accused of being a soft-headed liberal. He professed his love for boxing, as well as for his dogs, Rusty and Maggie May. He made his strongest statements about equality in 2016, and then went on to have the best year of his career and finish the season No. 1.
Let’s go muzz you absolute fkn legend, I want 5 sets
— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) January 14, 2019
Murray retained his membership in the male fraternity, and in the process proved that being a member of that fraternity doesn’t require excluding or downgrading or ignoring women. That’s a lesson for tennis, which, more than any other sport, has the opportunity to be a progressive leader when it comes to gender equality. It’s also a lesson for men in general, one that goes well beyond sports. Without his voice, chauvinism might rise again in tennis, but he has shown that a different, more broad-minded path is possible, even for athletes. That’s why I wrote in 2016 that Murray might be the most important player of his generation. That’s why, as he makes his farewell tour in 2019, I still hope he can be.
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