We should talk just like that – after all, that’s the line everybody was taking on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal this time last year. Prolonged injury had affected both, just like Murray. Surely, people said, their appetites have withered and died: great players whose time has gone… and then Rafa and Rog won all four grand slam tournaments between them.
Murray’s year took a reverse trajectory. He started it as number one and ended it at 16, the lowest he’s been since 2008. He suffered an elbow injury, came back to reach the semis in the French Open, then got a hip injury that just wouldn’t go away.
The last time he played serious tennis was at Wimbledon, where he lost in the quarter-finals to Sam Querrey. He was planning to play in Brisbane earlier this month, but had to pull out due to his hip injury, and eventually withdrew from the Australian Open, having surgery shortly afterwards.
These are worrying times – for him and for all of us who have enjoyed watching him. Murray has been part of our lives for years – I remember watching him beat Tim Henman in Basle in 2005. But he’s still only 30, and Federer won the Australian Open and Wimbledon last year at 35.
It could even be that Murray’s best is yet to come – unless he’s weary of the struggle. But of course Murray isn’t weary of the struggle. He is the struggle. Struggle defines him. Give him a battle against insuperable odds and he’s yer man: ease and comfort and self-indulgence are anathema. If you want to encourage him, just make the task more difficult.
The truth is that few champions have had it harder. His greatest mistake in tennis was the year he was born. It’s meant that he has had to scrap for opportunities against two of the greatest players that ever picked up a racket.
Then, to make things worse, the duopoly of Federer and Nadal was broken by Novak Djokovic, another player of all-time greatness. In any other era Murray would have won seven or eight grand slam singles titles by now. That he has won three in such company is remarkable.
It’s unlikely that his appetite has faded. He loves the actual process of playing tennis. Making rallies remains a delight to him. He revels in the physical business of playing a series of tennis shots, while the intellectual in him relishes the tactical nuances.
Perhaps the one thing that’s changed in recent years is the way he has cut back on the orgies of self-loathing that used to seize him when he slipped a little below brilliance. Those outbreaks of emotion, painful to all concerned, could be counter-productive.
Murray doesn’t do mellow, not on court anyway, but perhaps this sustained break will make him a little more forgiving of himself, without lessening his desire for victory. The problem is that the longer the break, the harder it will be.
It might be the end – or it might be the perfect reboot. “Hurting inside”, he steps into the uncertainties of a new sporting year.
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