The most crushing aspect of Andy Murray’s Australian Open was not the first press conference, when he wept after two words and then announced his possible retirement at Wimbledon, if not before, due to a persistent hip injury. Nor was it the instant classic first-round match, which Murray lost to Roberto Bautista Agut in five sets. After the eulogies and the public mourning and the widespread consensus on the significance of his glittering career, the most dispiriting moment came when, shattered by his regrets, he rebutted them all.
“Some people might say: ‘It’s a positive thing that Andy worked really, really hard, such and such, trained hard,’” said Murray in his post-match press conference. “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.”
Murray’s doubts and his ravaged cartilage are the most significant news from the Australian Open this year, but that news is also a larger reflection of the grind that tennis inflicts on its subjects. Governed by points, prize money, and appearance fees, the athletes circle the globe for 11 months each year, chasing the sun and success. Tennis players must meet specific tournament quotas to collect bonuses and maintain their rankings. For most, this means a constant cycle of traveling, playing matches, or training for their next event, with the threat of burnout and injury looming endlessly.
“You don’t know how long you’re going to be successful,” says Roger Federer, one of the most successful players in the history of the sport. “You just don’t know. That’s why I think a tennis player’s life, it’s very short-term planning. It makes it kind of difficult because we don’t have a five-year deal in some club, like team sports.” It’s often only when players meet people from outside of their bubble that they consider the strangeness of their professional lives. “I speak to French handball player Daniel Narcisse and he says: ‘Fuck! It’s crazy for you guys. One week you’re in Australia. One week you’re in France,’” says young Frenchman Lucas Pouille. “We travel all the time, we play, and we never rest.”
The grueling schedule grinds players mentally and robs them of their free time, but the physical cost is often insurmountable. In the past two years, almost every male top player has suffered a serious, career-threatening injury. Roger Federer tore his meniscus, Novak Djokovic sobbed for three days after he was forced undergo surgery, and Rafael Nadal has spent his career at war with his own body. Murray, meanwhile, has struggled with his hip since 2017. “The men have the longest season,” says Andrea Petkovic. “Plus, they have the best of five at the slams. Especially the best players, I think they will start to rethink everything.”
Still, female players face similar demands in a physical sport with immense depth. “It’s a very taxing profession,” says Johanna Konta, laughing. “There’s no other way to say it. We consciously put our bodies and our mental and physical health on the line to be able to be in the position to get a chance to achieve something.”
Murray’s injury, and his emotional press conference, have recently highlighted the grueling nature of the sport, but it has been a constant refrain from the players for decades. At the ATP Finals in mid-November last year, just six weeks before the beginning of the new year, Alexander Zverev spoke out about the length of the season, branding it “ridiculous”: “We don’t have time to prepare. We finish here, we go for a 10-day holiday, then we train for two weeks, then we go to Australia,” he said.
“I think every sport has somewhat of an offseason. We have, too, but you can’t count it like that,” Federer says. Nadal in particular takes issue with the dominance of the concrete surface that pounds the joint and his knees. At the Australian Open, he shrugged. “It’s true that I’ve had so many injuries in my career,” he says. “I’ve said it many times but in the end, I think that one has to consider if tennis wants to go down this route on this surface.”
Though most players can’t relate to the potentially life-altering aspects of Murray’s injuries, they understand that it’s a possibility for all. “You’re not asking yourself, ‘Hey, am I going to be able to play tennis next week, or next match, or the next Grand Slam down the road,” Milos Raonic says. “You’re sort of asking yourself: ‘Can I live a normal life after? Could I go out for a run, can I stay in shape? Or am I going to be confined to very limited activities in life?”
The greatest measure of tennis’s dysfunction is in the way it contradicts regular athletic norms. In most other sports, injuries are the greatest enemy: They sideline competitors from their livelihoods and overwhelm an individual with doubt. But recent tennis seasons have been filled with players who suffered serious injuries, departed the tour for a long period, and then returned with a refreshed perspective. In tennis, injuries can inadvertently drive players to their greatest success.
U.S. no. 1 Sloane Stephens achieved one of the great comebacks in 2017 by winning the U.S. Open in her fifth tournament back from foot surgery after only 11 months away. For Stephens, her break from the sport offered her a “reset” and the chance to live like a real person. “I felt like I was missing something at home,” she says. “I was able to be with my grandparents and really experience life.”
The latest wave of players to return to the sport after career-threatening injuries included former slam finalists Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. For Berdych, it wasn’t until he finally paused for six months in 2018 that he was able to sit back and reflect on the absurdity of his existence in the sport. He likened the tour to being trapped: “For me, it was like getting out of a box which is just spinning around, and you can’t really get out of it, and it‘s melting you down. When you took the time off, you get out of it and you’re just watching the box from the outside, and you see all what’s happening.”
Berdych saw his back injury as a simple opportunity to let go. He used the time to refresh mentally and decided to return only when he felt like it. “If I needed one year, then I [would have] taken one more year,” he says. “I wanna say that [this break is] the best thing I’ve done in really long years. It just opens up my eyes and gives me a great perspective on tennis.”
Tsonga, who missed seven months after knee surgery, underlined the joy he discovered in mundanity. “You feel light!” he says, chuckling. “Because, of course, to travel every week, never sleep in your bed, always in hotel every week, it’s not something common. We’ve lived this life since we were kids. For us it’s also refreshing to stay at home, do the same things every day.” U.S. no. 3 Madison Keys concurs: “I was really excited to go to the grocery store, like, every day,” she says. Only in tennis can physical ruin promote mental self-care.
Personal crisis has also proved an avenue for players to find themselves away from the tour. Timea Bacsinszky effectively retired from tennis in 2013, and she worked in a hotel until spontaneously deciding to return to the sport. In a sport where players are often thrust into competition from a young age, flanked by older coaches and instructed to focus only on maximizing their chances of success, autonomy can be an alien concept for younger players. Bacsinszky returned determined to play tennis only for herself, breezing past her previous career high of 37 and into the top 10.
“I had to step aside and do what I wanted to do. Not what I was good at and what people were telling me to do because ‘It would have been a shame if I was not playing tennis,’” she says, her voice rising. “I’m the owner of my life. I have the right to do whatever I wanted to do. And even with my career now, I have the right to choose to come back or not to come back or to pick the persons around me.”
“It’s like a washing machine,” says Pouille, who reached the top 10 in March before considering a break from the sport by the end of the year. “You stop, you go in the wash, and then you come back and you’re clean, you’re ready to go mentally and physically. I think we’re going to see it more and more on the tour.”
In many ways, tennis players function far more like celebrities than athletes: Their “teams” consist of no teammates, just an entourage of employed coaches, advisers, and specialists. Meanwhile, players are disproportionately responsible for their own management and health. When soccer players are injured during a match, it’s usually the coach that decides on a substitution; in tennis, the players make decisions that affect their future, often while under the burden of extreme financial and competitive pressure. As Murray noted in his second press conference, the athlete’s instinct is always to attempt to endure the pain. When combined with a professional’s need to keep a career going, the average tennis player’s instinct to persevere can be catastrophic.
It’s no coincidence that the players who have attained unprecedented longevity are the Williams sisters and Roger Federer, three athletes with historic success and the financial freedom that comes with it. Venus and Serena Williams spent much of the first half of their careers savaged by the media for making their own standards, pursuing their businesses, and playing limited schedules. Their lives beyond the court are what have sustained their interest in the sport for so long. Unlike most of their rivals, they have always remained on the periphery, playing the barest minimum.
For Serena, the demands of the tour weren’t compatible, so she simply didn’t comply with them. “I just literally couldn’t try to do all the traveling,” she says, shrugging. “I was always doing something. I was either in school or working on some company. It was always something I was doing, so it didn’t actually allow me to travel as much. I always feel when I play tournaments, I just try to do the best I can in them, and then maybe I wouldn’t have to play as many.”
On the other hand, Federer’s longevity is the consequence of long-term planning. After winning his first Australian Open in 2004, Federer sat down with his fitness coach, who implored him not to be drawn by the appearance fees offered by lower events. “He told me, ‘Just do me a favor, please, and don’t chase appearance fees and play every tournament.’ I was like, ‘No, I won’t. I will try to play the best schedule possible.’ … I think I can be very happy that I didn’t do that.”
For many players, however, the examples of both the Williams sisters and Federer are unattainable. They stress that their ability allows them to pick and choose the events they play and the amount of time they spend competing. “Roger is really strong because he accepts that even if he loses somewhere, he’s gonna take three weeks, then rest, practice and come back,” Pouille says. “Of course, he’s no. 1, it’s easy! But still, he plays 13 tournaments a year when some players are playing 25, 28, and 30 tournaments, and that’s a lot.”
The great tragedy of Andy Murray’s career is that, like so many tennis players, he never got healthy enough to plan for longevity. He announced his first surgery at the end of 2013 with the reassuring yet oxymoronic phrase “minor back operation.” He ended the following season desperately chasing his ranking, exhausting himself through grueling matches and countless tournaments in succession. In 2016 again, he pursued the no. 1 ranking with a brutally demanding schedule; six months after finishing the year as no. 1, he faced Stan Wawrinka in the five-set French Open semifinal. And then, give or take a goodbye match this summer, his hip was done.
For the rest of the players, what struck them most was the cruelty of Murray’s fate, dictated not by his own choices but by an injury that proved insurmountable. “This is really sad for all of us,” Novak Djokovic says. “We talked about it. It’s sad to see him go that way, that is not on his terms. Injuries are the greatest obstacle that an athlete can have.”
Bacsinszky says: “This is the thing that I would fear the most in the future. This is the only wish I have. It’s really—the day I decide I wanna stop, let it be my own decision. Mine. It belongs to me. Not to an injury.”