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21 January 2023

The unbreakable spirit of Andy Murray

The Scottish tennis player has achieved a late-career grandeur and nobility.

By Jason Cowley

Watching Andy Murray at the Australian Open – his epic second-round match on 19 January lasted nearly six hours and finished at 4.05am – I was reminded of a story the novelist Tim Pears once told me about the American tennis player Jimmy Connors. At the age of 39, Connors, having refused to retire, was struggling at the 1991 US Open against a much younger opponent and heading for certain defeat. And yet, Connors somehow prevailed in a gruelling five-set match. “Are you crazy?” Ilie Năstase asked an exhausted Connors afterwards as he was on a drip and in the urgent care of doctors. “What’s wrong with you, you’ve won this tournament five times. Now you’re old, you want to die on the court?”

Connors stared blankly at his old Romanian rival. “Năstase, you understand nothing. You’re European, you’re a bullshitter like all Europeans. For me, the five wins don’t count. It’s the last one that counts. This one. I’m still here.”

There is no one to compare with Andy Murray in contemporary men’s tennis. Four years ago at the Australian Open, most observers assumed the great Scottish champion, aged only 31, had played his last competitive match. Injuries were devouring him. He was in such pain he could scarcely move on court. Later, at a press conference, he described tearfully his physical suffering. The room was heavy with a sense of an ending.

“I spoke to my team and I told them that I can’t keep doing this,” Murray said. “I needed to have an endpoint because I was playing with just no idea of when the pain was going to stop… I’ve been in a lot of pain for what has been probably 20 months now, I’ve pretty much done everything that I could to try to get my hip feeling better.”

Four years later – after multiple surgeries and now playing with a metal joint in his hip (there is an Amazon Prime documentary, Resurfacing, about his medical journey) – Murray is still here. He does not need to play – financially, reputationally – and yet he needs to play. He needs to keep on keeping on, because he cannot stop, even if his body is telling him to stop, because this is who he is, what he wants.

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“I didn’t get to bed till about 5.30,” his mother, Judy Murray, said after the astounding second-round match. “It is really remarkable what he is doing. He is just an incredible fighter and his resilience is second to none.”

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Later that morning, after his 4.05am finish, Murray was back at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne by 9.30am. “I saw him today before my match,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Greek player. “I was thinking to myself: ‘What is he doing here? He should be in bed.’”

What was he doing there? Only Murray can answer that question and perhaps even he does not quite understand what he was doing there, what compels him to get out of bed and keep hitting balls, again and again.

Born in Glasgow in 1987, Murray, Britain’s greatest ever tennis player, grew up in Dunblane. He was a pupil at the local primary school and was there the day 16 of his fellow pupils and one teacher were murdered in a spree shooting. He has won three grand slam singles titles – Wimbledon twice and the US Open – two Olympic gold medals and, improbably, he inspired Great Britain to the Davis Cup title in 2015, the first time they had won the international team tournament since 1936 and the days of Fred Perry. In truth it was less a national than a family triumph: Andy’s elder brother, Jamie, a doubles specialist, was in the team.

In 2016 Murray was the world’s number one ranked player; for a period, he was one of the so-called Big Four, the near-equal of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Before his injuries, he was runner-up in eight grand slam finals. In any other era, Murray would have won at least ten grand slam titles, probably more.

In his early years on tour, he seemed dour and brooding. The repeated frustration of coming so close and yet missing out in the biggest tournaments was chewing him up. Invariably watched from the stands by Judy, he was intense on court, raging against marginal line calls that went against him and other perceived wrongs. What I missed back then was his understated humour as well as his strong convictions: in recent years, he has become more confident in condemning cant and injustice, in showing us who he really is.

Martin Amis once spoke to me about the late style of artists he admired, not least Saul Bellow. “It becomes a tauter challenge as you get older,” he said, “your craft is much improved even though your music is sort of dying.”

There is nothing serene about the late style of Andy Murray. Nowadays every match, especially at the grand slams, is a kind of torture for him. He wants to win. There’s brilliance in his craft. But he cannot move as he used to. The disappointment and anguish are palpable as he loses to players he must know he would once have beaten easily. But his will to go on is infinite. His spirit is unbreakable. Loved and admired by fellow professionals on tour – especially by women players because he has championed their game – Murray has achieved a late career grandeur and nobility. Do try to watch him, if only on TV, before the music dies.

[See also: How Andy Murray became a quiet ally for women in sport]

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This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better