Andy Murray is retiring from tennis. I keep starting this piece and then deleting everything I’ve typed. His right hip is wrecked. He can’t walk normally. He has trouble pulling on socks. On Friday he announced that this will be his last season. Wimbledon will be his last tournament, if he can hold on that long. On Monday morning I got up before dawn to watch him lose a punishing five-set match to Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round of the Australian Open. The score was 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-2. It was the kind of attritional bleed-out he’s suffered so many times in Australia, where he’s lost in the final five times, the difference being that this match was a long way from the final and the other difference being that every time he lunged for a ball I imagined the wrench twisting in his pelvis. Between points, he looked crooked. The match lasted four hours and nine minutes.
I keep deleting this and starting over because everything I type sounds cheap and obvious. I don’t want to be cheap and obvious when I talk about Murray because that isn’t how Murray talks about himself. It isn’t how he talks about anything. He’s one of the most emotionally intense players on the ATP Tour, but he’s also one of the least sentimental, and reliably, when asked a question, he thinks about it and makes an effort to answer honestly. I happen to think this quality is directly related to the way he plays tennis, and that it’s an essential part of what’s made him such a thrilling player to watch for so many years. It also runs directly counter to the demands of the typical star-player-retires story, which calls for exaggeration and wise little lessons and sentiment. I’m afraid that what might be a perfectly nice tribute for most athletes—a smooth description of his return game, a fable about never giving up—would, in Murray’s case, miss everything that’s made him so special, so beloved.
So I’ll try to explain what I mean. It’s no secret that high-level sports runs on fantasy and delusion. The level of self-belief required of elite athletes, who have to not just hope but know that they will make the impossible shot, crush the overhead volley, drill the last-second 3-pointer, overcome all obstacles, and obtain the golden object, verges on the psychotic. Rafael Nadal, for instance, is truly convinced, fiercely and earnestly convinced, that he can come back from two sets and two breaks down in a major final to beat the best players in the history of the game. Spend any time around professional sports and you realize that the armature of cliché by which athletes tend to describe their experience is mostly a survival tactic. The athletes aren’t stupid. They’re simply trying to shore up the resources to compete in an unforgiving environment. If nuance is a tool of doubt and doubt is fatal, you eliminate nuance. You simplify. Say anything often enough and you believe it. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
I have no idea what Murray is like in his private life. In public? He doesn’t do this. In public, he is wonderfully—and considering his profession, almost freakishly—committed to reality. The world where Roger Federer lives is very beautiful, but Andy Murray lives on Earth. You see this most clearly, of course, in his interviews, which are marked by a kind of dry, sensitive scrupulousness. I’ve been to Murray’s press conferences after big losses; the atmosphere is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in sports. In a way, I’ve learned more from them than I have from expert tennis analysis because Murray—tears still drying in his eyes, voice trailing away at the ends of thoughts—actually takes stock of himself and tells you what he sees. Not because he relishes giving a room full of reporters and photographers intimate access to his brain. Because it isn’t in his nature to prevaricate. No one is better to listen to than a reticent person who sees answering questions thoughtfully as a mark of basic respect.
After the Bautista Agut loss, Murray criticized himself for—of all things—having too strong a work ethic. “It’s also been a flaw of mine,” he said. “Some people might say it’s a positive thing that Andy worked really, really hard, such and such, trained hard. But I also often didn’t stop myself when I was being told to do things. I should have sometimes said, ‘No, I’m not doing that today.’ Or, ‘No, I don’t want to train today. I’m sore. I need a day off.’ I didn’t do that. I would always just kind of go along with what I was being told. That was a mistake.”
For the same reason, when he was asked a stupid question, he would calmly and gently eviscerate the questioner. Not out of rudeness; out of realism. He became celebrated, and rightly so, for championing women in tennis, but what made it right to celebrate him was that he never set out to “champion” anyone. He was just saying what he saw. It was transparently absurd to think that women couldn’t coach men—how could he, a man whose mother, Judy Murray, was the preeminent British tennis coach of her generation, not know that? So he hired former no. 1 player and two-time Grand Slam champion Amélie Mauresmo as his coach, not for moral style points but because he thought she could help his game. When men asked dumb questions about whether she went with him into the locker room or whatever, he put them in their place. The perverse law of human interaction that gives conservatism the right to pose as common sense held no weight for him. It wasn’t common sense to huff and tut and leeringly wonder whether a woman had seen him naked. Noticing that women’s tennis wasn’t being treated equally so long as the prize money wasn’t equal: That was common sense.
So what if it would have benefited him to take the opposite view? The opposite view was moronic! From Murray’s perspective, I don’t think forgoing a convenient delusion ever looked like anything to be particularly proud of. It just looked like not being deluded.
Translate that mind-set to the tennis court, though—drop it a few feet behind the baseline, shifting its weight from right to left as it waits for its opponent to serve—and that’s where things get wonderful and difficult. Murray has sometimes been written about as though he lacks confidence. A feather falls from the sky—this actually happened, at the 2013 Australian Open final—and it’s enough to make him implode and lose the match. How mentally fragile can you get? With respect, however: A British man does not overcome the pulsating hell-crucible of British pressure to become British manhood’s first Wimbledon winner in 77 British years if he isn’t fairly sturdy in the bean. Murray doesn’t lack confidence; he simply doesn’t fool himself into thinking that reality is wholly in his control.
In this, of course, he is correct. Sniffing moss will not help Tom Brady avoid arthritis. Seeing the world through a carefully maintained screen of self-serving ego-clichés will not guarantee that Novak Djokovic won’t flub a drop shot. Statistically, though, it seems to help. Sports rewards fanatics over skeptics. In that sense, the quality in Murray that seems to me most genuinely impressive is one that always put him at a disadvantage. He wasn’t the most talented player and he knew it. There were days when gravity and the ball’s flight were going to get the better of him, and he knew that, too. It wasn’t in his nature to turn off the part of his brain that knew those things. He sometimes seemed to be playing in his matches and simultaneously watching them from the outside, assessing them to see what the world would let him have that day. When Nadal and Djokovic get mad, it’s a sharp, focused anger that points inward. You! Play better. When Murray gets mad, his anger is often more diffuse and atmospheric; he’s a drowning man cursing the ocean. Not another shipwreck, you ****!
That’s the fulcrum, for me; that’s the essence of his career. He wasn’t just a bit less talented than Federer and Nadal and Djokovic. He was also a bit less certain—not because he was weak, but because of the specific way in which he was strong. Stronger, in any context beyond sports. He was playing with a deficit of ability and a deficit of dumb, raw faith, and he competed with them anyway, beat them sometimes, even beat them a lot of the time, considering. As recently as the summer before last he was the no. 1 men’s player in the world. Against his rivals, he was permanently in the more vulnerable position, the more human position (“a human in the land of the Gods,” the Independent called him) and he did more from that place than any of us had reason to expect.
I don’t want to have to delete this again, though for all I know I ought to, so I’ll just say that I admire him, and I came to admire him more the longer I got to watch him. It was probably time for him to retire, the hip being as bad as it is. I hope he manages to play at Wimbledon, as he says he wants to do. I hope he sticks around the game when he’s done playing. He’d be a brilliant analyst. I hope the next surgery takes away his pain. He’ll be fine, in any case. Tennis is only tennis. Even if it sometimes feels like more.