Some people get quite upset when the word heroic is used in connection with athletic performance. But what can you do? Some people are idiots. This was an absolute heroic display from Andy Murray. If it was his last game of professional tennis, it was imbued with heroism. If he retires tomorrow, he leaves a hero.
There, said it. Murray is as near as a man can get to inspiring hero-worship, without donning a cape, or bending tracks to divert a runaway train from striking an orphanage.
At one stage it appeared we were about to witness one of the most remarkable comebacks in tennis history but instead had to settle for heroic defeat, as Murray’s body chased him down the way he had chased down Roberto Bautista Agut, across a match that went into its fifth hour.
Andy Murray was knocked out of the Australian Open in round one by Roberto Bautista Agut
The former world No 1 came back from two sets down as he put in a heroic effort in Melbourne
Bautista Agut is one of the world’s form players right now – Novak Djokovic was a recent scalp, in Doha – and when he went two sets up it looked as if Murray was to bow out with dignity, but pretty much as expected.
The Australian hosts had prepared a tribute montage to be shown on the big screens around Margaret Court Arena, and many of Murray’s rivals and colleagues had contributed. The tournament director was no doubt getting ready to roll it. But Murray had other ideas.
From there, he won two tiebreak sets to return the match to 2-2, then held serve to lead the fifth set 1-0. He was ahead for the first time since the seventh game. The player who had talked about this as potentially his farewell was closing in on an outcome as baffling, as it would be brilliant.
By now, the crowd were spending as much time on their feet as in their seats, including the various members of family and team Murray that were gathered in the players’ box. Impassive no more, they were willing him on. They would have known he was in pain, but also that this was his choice.
From a euphoric rolling back of the years, reality came barging through the door in set five
He wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. The hip that had seemed as insurmountable an obstacle as Rafa Nadal on clay, seemed to have been dispatched like a poor second serve. This was happening. This was really happening.
And then it wasn’t. From a euphoric rolling back of the years, reality came barging through the door like a gang of drunken gatecrashers at a nerdy teenager’s birthday party.
The set began to slip from Murray – 1-1, 2-1, 3-1, 4-1 – and as it did no doubt his thoughts turned to the end. Not just the end of his career and the pain that was precipitating it, because that is an anguish he lives with daily, but the end of this match. How would he handle that? How could he keep his emotions in check?
There would be an interview, and the same questions that he has been fielding for months, except this time they would need answering in a way that gave closure. And Murray, plainly, was not ready for closure. Not just yet.
So as the match moved into hour five, at 5-1 down, he held his racket up to the crowd, who were cheering now, in anticipation of seeing the last game of tennis of his professional career. He looked a little moist around the eyes, as did his mother, Judy. He puffed out his cheeks, and fought to keep it all together.
Even though he was down 5-1 in the final set, Murray still stubbornly held serve in the next
And then he held serve.
He does that, Murray. He has a way of making each fresh round an ordeal, often an emotional one. You strap yourself in for the long haul when you watch him. It was no different on Monday.
Those who tuned in shortly after 7am UK time and were envisaging getting on with their day soonest, would have found themselves somewhat exasperated to still be sitting on the sofa at close to noon. It was ever thus.
Matches that appear won turn into epic encounters; lost causes are unexpectedly salvaged. Nothing is easy. Everything takes time, demands investment. Even this. Even a foregone conclusion.
Here was a man with a decaying hip, who was supposed to be adapting his game to make the rallies as short as possible. And yet, hour five and we’re still engaged.
Britain’s Murray has a way of making each fresh round an ordeal, often an emotional one
Hour five and he’s challenging a call at 5-2 and 15-0 down, when every pain receptor in his body must have his brain on speed dial and is hitting the call button on repeat. Credit to Bautista Agut who by this stage might have felt inclined to just hop over the net and reason with him, make him see sense.
Instead, the Spaniard closed out the game, and then spoke generously of his opponent, showing no impatience that his own victory was largely sidelined. His impassiveness throughout was its own tribute, too, always treating Murray as a opponent who needed to be beaten, not one that should be.
Indeed, a player with less mental strength may even have succumbed when Murray fought back. When a player whose body is no longer fit for purpose suddenly finds the athletic resolve to engage in a 23 shot rally, and win the point, it can mess with the head.
In 2016, when Murray ascended to the height of world number one by beating Novak Djokovic in London, the event began, mysteriously, with a reading of a poem by Dylan Thomas.
In glimpses we still saw the younger, fitter man – the ball coming back when it should not
‘Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rave at close of day / Rage, rage against the dying of the light…’ And here was Murray, little more than two years later, doing just that.
Raging against the dying of his light, his incredible talent, burning and raving, despite the disadvantages, the injustice of it all, his body giving up in a way his spirit never did. In glimpses we still saw the younger, fitter man. The ball coming back when it should not, the anticipation, the early takes. And the strategies, of course.
That hasn’t deserted him: arguably the sharpest mind in tennis. The player who overcame more naturally gifted players, because he made plans, and set traps. Bautista Agut had never taken a set off him before Monday and, one imagines, had Murray remained fit that record would have remained intact.
Until the final set, the biggest winning margin between the players was a single break. Murray was still finding ways to overcome his limitations, right until the end.
If it is, after all, the end. No doubt buoyed by the unexpected closeness of this encounter, Murray spoke as if he may take one final swing at saving his career with a major hip operation.
Murray spoke as if he may take one final swing at saving his career with a major hip operation
The tournament organiser went ahead and showed the montage of his best moments anyway. There is no guarantee extensive surgery will preserve anything more than his quality of life, and Murray’s doctor has done little to encourage optimism in recent days.
But we believe in Murray, the way we still believe in heroes, and because he so often delivers the amazing. He may have ached like a man who was giving up, but he didn’t play like one.
He burned and raved and raged in a way that made us miss him more than ever, if this is his last. And even in defeat, he went out a hero: because in Andy Murray, we most certainly have one.
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