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4 July 2024

The last days of Andy Murray

As the injured tennis champion limps into his final Wimbledon, he joins the sport’s rollcall of tragic heroes.

By Harry Eyres

At the French Open earlier this year there was a sense of Götterdämmerung. No tennis career lasts for ever; even the very greatest eventually tire and retire from the race. But this year it felt as if the last of a generation of titans were leaving the stage. The downing of the indomitable warrior Rafael Nadal, undoubtedly the greatest clay court player of all time, in the first round at the hands of Alexander Zverev was the most striking and poignant example.

The 14-times champion went down fighting, of course, but he lost in straight sets to a ruthless, much younger opponent who had an answer to everything Nadal threw at him. It was Nadal’s fourth loss at Roland Garros against 112 wins.

Nadal was not the only great champion that appeared to be making his final bow. Andy Murray, one-time finalist and four-times semi-finalist in Paris, gritting it out these days on tour after hip surgery, lost to Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 champion, who nine years ago produced some of the most spectacular clay court tennis ever seen to beat both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, both then in their pomp.

Though Wawrinka, unfurling his magnificent single-handed backhand, defeated Murray in fine style, he lost in the next round to the relatively unknown Pavel Kotov. Even Novak Djokovic, the man seemingly made of rubber, having extricated himself from defeat in two five-setters, had to retire with an injured knee before his quarter-final.

All this prompts reflection on how tennis careers (and perhaps other careers) often end, not with a bang but with a whimper. All might hope for a resplendent apotheosis – a 15th title on the red dirt for Nadal against the odds, a third Olympic singles title for Murray, the man with the iron hip – but most exit the stage with a limping shuffle. Perhaps it was to avoid this fate that Björn Borg, almost as invincible on clay as Nadal, retired suddenly and abruptly at 26. But leaving on a high note did not shield him from a protracted midlife crisis.

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Injuries of one kind or another are by far the most common precipitators of decline. The latest and perhaps saddest example is Dominic Thiem, the 2020 US Open champion. Having suffered a wrist injury in 2021, Thiem fought his way back into the world’s top 100. But he has never managed to recapture the form that made him a champion. In Paris this year, his last on the tour, the 30-year-old two-times finalist failed to make the main draw.

A similar wrist injury derailed the imposing Argentinian Juan Martín del Potro, who came back from two sets down to beat Federer in the 2009 US Open final. Del Potro should have won many more majors.

Mental as well as physical frailty can take its toll. Naomi Osaka, unusual among tennis players of either sex in opening up about her mental health struggles, decided to take a break from the game having won four major titles, and, subsequently, given birth to her first child. She has made an impressive return, however, and came within a point of defeating the eventual champion Iga Swiątek in the second round at this year’s French Open. It was, in fact, the match of the tournament.

Perhaps more worrying is the case of Emma Raducanu, the British star who sensationally went through qualifying to win the 2021 US Open. Raducanu said she felt “mentally and emotionally exhausted” after losing in the first round at the Madrid Open in April, leaving many questions unanswered.

The new Amazon Prime documentary Federer: Twelve Final Days might seem to offer a counter-example. But however dramatic Federer’s finale in 2022 might have been – appearing at the Laver Cup, partnering his great rival Nadal in doubles – he did not exactly exit in a blaze of glory, at least of the conventional kind. He and Nadal lost their doubles match against Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe (9-11 in the match tiebreak).

The perfect exit for Federer, the most graceful and artistic player ever to strike the ball, would have been victory in the 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic. But despite holding two match points on his serve in the epic final set, Federer lost. If anything gives him sleepless nights, it must surely be that missed opportunity.

Federer: Twelve Final Days may offer a different kind of apotheosis. In the film Federer says he was hoping to contain his emotions in the last days of his playing career, but was unable to. Slumped in his chair after the Laver Cup doubles match he began to weep, and Nadal at his side promptly teared up too.

Those tears prompted a worldwide reaction not just of sympathy but of gratitude and appreciation. They brought to mind Aeneas’s words in Virgil’s Aeneid, when he sees scenes from the Trojan War depicted on the walls of a temple in Carthage: “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” – “there are tears for things, and mortal matters touch the heart”. What counts in the end is not just a tally of victories but the emotional memories left in the minds and hearts of players and spectators.

Nadal is out of this year’s Wimbledon and Djokovic is a serious doubt. That leaves Murray limping on, at least until the Olympics, in a world of pain and defiance which, by reminding us of our own mortality, evokes a kind of transcendent pity.

Harry Eyres’ books include “Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet” (Bloomsbury)

[See also: Golf’s wealth wars]

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