Kevin Coulson reacts to the news that Andy Murray is close to retiring from tennis, and looks at what legacy he leaves.
He has tried everything to get better, battled doubt and pain and will now have to make a huge decision. It’s a neat summation of Sir Andy Murray’s career, let alone his retirement.
The Scot who rejected Glasgow Rangers as a 15-year-old, before swiftly deciding to snub the LTA and move to Barcelona to further his career, has admitted he will not be playing tennis beyond Wimbledon, and could possibly retire as soon as next week.
Since taking advice from a teenage Rafa Nadal to move to Spain, the intervening 16 years have demonstrated beyond doubt that Murray is Britain’s greatest tennis player.
Humble Murray would probably not want this conversation to happen at all. But, when it eventually does after he retires, Virginia Wade will be a big part of it as Murray – a bold leader against sexism and gender inequality – would surely want.
Beyond the headlines and the titles, though, Murray's achievements surely outdo even Wade and possibly those from other sports as well.
It is a nebulous concept, but, as Kyle Edmund said in the wake of Friday’s news, Murray has a compelling case to "be Britain's best sportsman ever"...
Murray has always been a step ahead of everyone – even those who supposedly know better. Take his move to Spain. Murray knew that to stand a chance in tennis he couldn’t entrust his future to the overfunded, underperforming LTA. Instead he sacrificed much of his family life and education and moved to the Sanchez-Casal Academy after speaking with Nadal, who revealed that he trained as much as four hours a day – way more than Murray was able to in Scotland.
That bold move has been richly rewarded - to the tune of around £130million in earnings - and followed by other big decisions. Murray has for years been flying to Miami to train over the winter, the warm weather guaranteeing practice time outdoors and acclimatisation to the heat of Melbourne and the Australian Open. James Ward trained with him one year and called him a 'beast'.
While there, he has been pushing the boundaries of how to improve by spotting his weaknesses and borrowing techniques from other sports and players. Murray, when confronted with arch nemesis Novak Djokovic – a player as flexible as the most pliant Play-Doh – turned to yoga and even ballet techniques to improve his flexibility. This year, he tweaked it again to squeeze every ounce out of his failing hip.
A previous injury also led to another major move. A year after winning his first Wimbledon title, Murray split with his long-term friends Dani Vallverdu (hitting partner) and Jez Green (fitness trainer) after an unspectacular return from back surgery which took in a few titles but also a defeat to Roger Federer at the ATP Finals where he was almost double-bagelled.
Murray had stagnated, possibly even regressed. And in his quest for other opinions and insight, he turned to Amelie Mauresmo – a move that was criticised by many inside the tennis world, including Wade.
Andy Murray of Great Britain listens to coach Amelie Mauresmo during a practice session ahead of the 2016 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 11, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia
Image credit: Getty Images
But Murray persisted. He knows his own mind and when something is not working. It was another bold option that ultimately didn’t bring Grand Slam titles, but was worth trying – just like the gluten-free diet that transformed Djokovic’s health and fitness but made the Scot feel ‘awful’ after a couple of months.
No 1 in a dominant era
Murray can unashamedly curse his luck over his hip. But also for when he was born after suffering the misfortune of having to face up to the greatest selection of tennis players in history. Nadal, Federer and Djokovic: numbers 1, 2, and joint third in the list of most Grand Slams for men – with Djokovic probably set to surpass Pete Sampras on to the podium outright at this Australian Open – were perhaps only ever meant to be a trio.
Murray did not flinch when confronted with them. He worked harder, and made it the 'Big Four'. To pick up three majors in this era is testament to his sheer bloody-mindedness and ability. And one golden month in 2012 perhaps best encapsulates his resilience.
After becoming the first British male to reach the Wimbledon final since 1938, Murray lost to Federer in four sets and duly wept on court. But instead of writing off his chances, shirking away from the challenge, he returned a month later to not only beat, but crush, the same opponent – the most talented and successful player in history – and clinch Olympic gold.
It was another first: the only time a British man had won the Olympic singles gold medal since Josiah Ritchie in 1908. It was a turning point, proof that he could break down another barrier as he then lengthened his legacy by:
Winning the US Open to end a 76-year weight for a British major champion
Ending a 77-year stint with no British men’s Wimbledon champion
Becoming world No 1 ahead of the greatest, on paper at least, three players in history
There are other Britons who have won more medals, titles and money in other sports. And arguably some of them might have had more natural talent. But have they turned the tide of history so impressively? And have they done it singlehandedly?
And then there are the times when he has not done it alone, the obvious example being the astonishing Davis Cup success in 2015.
In this instance he was the talisman. It is one of the most overused words to describe sports stars, but for Murray it was legitimate - and not in the traditional meaning of someone or something that brings you luck. Murray does not believe in luck on the court. He embodied the more modern acceptance of the word: someone whose sheer presence exercises a remarkable or powerful influence on people's actions.
He made others around him better: as players overall and then when they played in a team. He dragged his colleagues across the line, not only through his results but through his influence.
The impact of it can still be felt. Edmund, a junior member of that team, saw at close quarters the commitment it takes to become the best in the world and is now approaching the top 10. He reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open last year after changing coaches to Swede Fredrik Rosengren improved his fortunes. Where have we heard that before?
There are simple acts as well, with Murray inspiring Katie Boulter through a simple text when she broke into the top 100 and fans through simple words. His influence is everywhere. The monetary value of what he has done for tennis in this country, a backwater of underachievement until his arrival, is impossible to estimate. It is priceless.
What now for Murray?
Murray will soon have to alter his over-modest Twitter profile from ‘I play tennis’ to something else, but what will it be? He may limp through his match with Roberto Bautista Agut and possibly even to Wimbledon, but the likelihood of that is lessening by the day.
In the short-term, more surgery seems probable. During his emotional press conference in Melbourne, he said: "I have an option to have another operation which is a little bit more kind of severe than what I've had before, having my hip resurfaced which would allow me to have a better quality of life.
That's something I'm seriously considering right now. Bob Bryan had this operation post-Wimbledon last year and is obviously playing.
"But obviously there’s a difference between singles and doubles in terms of the physicality and movement and stuff. Certainly, no guarantees there."
However, for those dreaming of a Murray return to the doubles court, and even a Murray Dream Team with his brother Jamie, that is surely unlikely. The 31-year-old can barely touch his toes and put on his shoes without pain. As a new father, he is unlikely to risk destroying his quality of life once more.
Even though his great rivals Djokovic, Federer and Nadal have all returned from serious injury problems to pick up majors, Murray is the unlucky one. His hip problem has meant the end – or close to it – for many others: Gustavo Kuerten, Lleyton Hewitt, Magnus Norman, Tommy Haas, David Nalbandian and Greg Rusedski to name an illustrious few.
So it is tempting to wonder how many more titles Murray could – and should – possibly have won. But the options ahead are broad: Murray could do anything. If he stays in the game, probably the most likely outcome, commentary and analysis will surely call after he dipped his toe in the water last year after withdrawing from Wimbledon.
Ambassadorial roles will also be offered and there is, perhaps, a far-fetched option: politics. Murray has delved into the debate before with his views on the Scottish referendum and we now live in an era where celebrities and sports stars are starting to join - and in some cases, lead - governments. George Weah is the President of Liberia, Imran Khan is prime minister of Pakistan, and then there is Donald Trump.
Whether this is a good thing is a debate for beyond this website and for Murray any move is certainly one for the distant future. However, if politics is currently lacking in intelligence, integrity, honesty and bold decisions, there is one sports star, who already has Billie Jean King's backing for great things, that could try and plug that gap.
Whenever the announcement comes, one thing is for sure: it will be on Murray's terms. He will put every ounce of energy into his future beyond tennis, and the chances are he will be successful.
But before we look at what is to come we must take time to enjoy all the past achievements – on and off the court – of Murray. For these things we salute you, Sir.