Landmark birthdays – they are to be approached with caution. Turning 18 or 21 is fun: you now get to do things officially that you have been doing unofficially for years. But now you don’t get told off. After that, though, it is all downhill. Your 30th means you are supposed to be grown up; 40 is the first step to being past it and let’s not even talk about 50.
For a professional sportsman, though, the birthdays come thick and fast. The working life of an athlete is short – with health and good fortune, a decade or so at the top – and every 12 months that passes is like a handful of years in a normal career. It is a bit like aging in dog years.
Tomorrow, Andy Murray will turn 30. When he was starting out on the road to greatness, 30 was the beginning of the end. Players in their 30s were politely referred to as “veterans” and had little to look forward to other than regular duffings up by the younger boys. Bjorn Borg retired at 26; John McEnroe retired at 33. And then again at 35. And then finally hung up his racket at 47. But his days of domination had come to an end in his mid-20s. The likes of Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi were the exceptions that proved the rule: great champions with a different DNA to the rest.
That Murray’s 30th birthday coincides with a slump in form and a succession of niggling but no less frustrating illness and injury (February was lost to a bout of shingles, March was disrupted by an elbow injury and a bout of flu) could be a cause for concern.
He worked himself to a standstill to claim the No.1 ranking at the end of last year. For seven months he had fought his way to final after final, winning nine trophies and losing just three matches between June and November. It was physically exhausting but also mentally draining with precious little time in the off-season to rest and recover. No sooner had the wrapping paper and mince pies been cleared away on Boxing Day than he was packing his bags again and heading to Doha for the first tournament of the year. And he was not getting any younger.
Fortunately Murray, for all his current frustrations, does not see tomorrow’s anniversary as anything to worry about. The fact that he was able to play so consistently for so long last year – he won five titles in seven weeks to end the season – is proof he is physically strong enough to maintain his place at the top of the rankings. Now, he needs to find the balance to keep body and soul together to do it all again.
“Physically, this year’s been a little bit of a struggle but at the end of last year, I was absolutely fine,” he said. “So I’m hoping that when I turn 30 it’s not the end or I am getting like I am on the downward slope now.
“But the best way to test that stuff – I can test it in the gym – is great. All of my training sessions are good. But then it’s about winning matches on the court. I need to maintain my motivation and my standards. It’s certainly going to get tougher to stay right at the top because the younger guys are obviously going to get better and it’s not easy to improve as you get older but you can still do a lot with experience.”
Tomorrow is likely to be a normal day like any other. He will be in Rome for the last clay court Masters 1000 event before the French Open so there will be the usual routines of practice, training and recovery to go through. The life of the multi-millionaire, jet-setting athlete is not all glamour. And as for the thought of turning 30…
“I’m not that big into birthdays,” he said. “I was saying to my team the other day, the last time I was at home on birthday, and around my friends and family, was when I was like 13 or 14. It’s been a long time – I don’t think about birthdays much. I’m not massively into them. I didn’t even known what day it was next week until I was told yesterday so, yeah, I haven’t thought about it much. Maybe on the day, that will be a little bit different. A lot of people put huge emphasis on birthdays and I’m sure it will be chatted about a lot but I haven’t thought about it a lot.”
Back in 2005 when he was a scrawny 18-year-old making his way to his first appearance on Wimbledon’s Centre Court – and taking the first two sets from David Nalbandian – life was simple: he trained, he played and he won. Or he lost – as he did eventually to Nalbandian. But then he went home and, as he thought then, nobody noticed. But all of that changed once he left Wimbledon. He was now a star in the making.
These days, Murray is one of the elder statesmen of the tour. Intelligent, thoughtful and eloquent, he is the go-to man for views and opinions on the running of tennis and any other matter from Scottish independence to who is going to win the football on Saturday. When Murray speaks, people listen and his opinion carries weight.
Looking back on his 12 years in the media spotlight, he does wish that at 18 he knew a little of what he knows now. But, overall, there are no regrets.
“Definitely in the first few years, the attention was something I wasn’t prepared for,” Murray said. “That all came very quickly to me, that was something that was surprising and has been a constant struggle throughout my career to get that side of things right and balanced. It doesn’t just affect you, it’s also your family and those closest to you. So that’s certainly something I didn’t know and one of the things I would have done with my career differently.
“I’m not sure anyone goes through their career and goes ‘you know what, I did everything right when I was 18 and everything right when I was 22’. Of course there are things I would have done differently and maybe trained slightly differently that would have helped me avoid my back surgery [in 2013]. Things like that, it came at the prime of my career which was disappointing and tough to get through but, for the most part, it has been a good 30 years I think.”
And, Murray believes, there is plenty to look forward to after the celebrations – or lack thereof – on Monday. He may be turning 30 but tennis is no longer a young man’s game. Roger Federer is 35 and still winning grand slam titles, Rafael Nadal will turn 31 during the French Open, a tournament he is the overwhelming favourite to win. These days, 30 is only a number.
“Everyone’s different in how their body changes when they get older,” Murray said. “Some are going to be in better shape than others. Sometimes it will be because of the nature of the way they play. But also there are things going on in your body that you guys wouldn’t know about, that I may have in my body, or Rafa or Roger. We don’t know what everyone’s born with, so I think I’ve got a good few years left in me.”