By close of play on Monday in Melbourne, Andy Murray’s career may be over.
The tearful Scot yesterday admitted defeat to the hip injury that has cost him the best part of 20 months of truly competitive play and announced that he would retire this year. His hope is to make his farewell at Wimbledon but the more he spoke, the more it sounded as if that was a pipe dream: he was in too much pain to grind through the next five months just to hang on for a last hurrah in SW19.
The decision to retire was made – again, tearfully – in December. The decision to bring the date forward has only been brewing for the past week. And if he loses to Roberto Bautista Agut, pictured inset, in the first round of the Australian Open on Monday, the date may have been brought forward even nearer.
A year ago, Murray had surgery in Melbourne with the hope that his right hip could be patched up enough to get another couple of years out of his career. He slowly and carefully went through the rehab process for months until he was ready to try a tentative comeback. After he had hobbled through three grass court matches, he then started specialist rehab work with Bill Knowles in Philadelphia. Seven weeks of that later, he was ready to try a proper training block in the off-season – and that is when he realised that this was one battle he could not win. By the time he was playing in Brisbane at the start of the month, he knew his time was soon to be up.
“It was in December when I kind of made that decision and told my team about it,” he said. “It was in the middle of one practice. I had tears in my eyes and said, ‘my hip is killing me. I shouldn’t be continuing to go through that for nothing any more’.
“There have been points, though, through the year, last year, at different stages where I had spoken about stopping. I was in too much pain, wasn’t enjoying it. It didn’t feel like the surgery had worked.
“I had been advised after having the hip operation that things can improve after up to a year to 18 months, really. In terms of the surgery, I was advised wait and see how that goes and when, obviously, I went off to Philadelphia and did different rehab – which helped and improved things, to a point, in terms of my function and things I was able to do. But my hip doesn’t recover from matches or training any more.
“In Brisbane, I felt OK in the first match – not amazing, just OK. But next day, I felt quite a bit worse. Obviously, as a tournament goes on, the pain gets worse, so my performance drops. There’s no possibility for me to do well.”
No athlete takes the decision to retire lightly but for Murray, who was ranked No 1 in the world when his hip gave out on him in the summer of 2017 and was in his pomp, it is especially hard.
“I think it would be a lot easier for me if it was a decision that I wanted to take,” he said, “if my performance wasn’t how I wanted it and I just wasn’t as good as I was before and the young guys are better. Therefore, challenging for big tournaments and stuff is not possible any more.
“But because this is not something that I want to do – I don’t want to stop playing tennis just now, I don’t feel ready, the rest of my body feels perfect. That’s the hard thing about it. It’s not like I wake up and my whole body’s sore, and just aching, and it’s too much. It’s just one problem that can’t be fixed. That’s why it’s difficult.”
It was in Brisbane that Murray began to consider further surgery – a resurfacing of the hip joint – to try and relieve the constant pain he suffers. It is true that some athletes have had such an operation and then have been able to return to competition but Murray is not thinking in those terms. He just wants to live a normal, pain-free life. To be able to play professional tennis again would be a huge bonus but he will settle for a decent quality of life.
“If I stop playing tennis today, I would seriously be considering having an operation because day-to-day life is not fun,” he said. “I can’t do stuff I would want to do, even if I wasn’t a professional athlete. I would want to go and play football with my friends, or go and play 18 holes of golf and enjoy doing that – whereas I can’t think of anything worse than going and playing five-a-side football with my friends, because I can’t kick a football.
“As somebody who wants to live an active life-style, it’s a better option for me [than a hip replacement] and also it was not something I was thinking about until a week ago. I was planning on playing through until Wimbledon and that was what I wanted to do. I said I think I can manage this because I have been playing through pain for a long time and there’s no reason I can’t do it for another five months, knowing there’s an end point. I can be smart with scheduling but when I got here I thought I am tired of it and don’t really want to have another five months of that pain really and that’s when I starting discussing having something like that done.”
With $61 million in prize money banked and 45 titles won, Murray has the wherewithal to live a comfortable and, if he wishes, lazy life post-retirement. But Murray is not wired that way. He has experienced the highs of three grand slam triumphs, two Olympic gold medals and a Davis Cup win. He has also experienced the lows of five losses in the final in Melbourne and another three final losses spread between Wimbledon and the French and US Opens. They hurt like hell but those losses were a part of the whole process and it is a feeling he knows he will never have again once he leaves the sport.
“You cannot recreate the high of winning Wimbledon or winning a Davis Cup; you cannot do that,” he said. “As much as the lows of losing here for a fifth time hurts, I always had that as a motivation. Even in the low points it was something that gave me drive and motivation to get up and work hard and do stuff. I don’t anticipate being able to replace that. I don’t see that happening.”
Marking out his second Wimbledon victory and carrying the flag at the Rio Olympics as the highlights of his illustrious career, Murray has managed his expectations for Monday. With a handful of painkillers to help him get through the match, he just wants to enjoy the moment and the experience because not even he is entirely sure that it will not be his last as a professional tennis player.