If respect, affection and admiration could win grand slam trophies, Tennis Australia would hand Andy Murray the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup now before a ball had been hit at the Australian Open.
Since he announced – tearfully – on Friday that he had been forced into early retirement by his chronic hip injury, the response from the rest of the world (and not just the sports world) has been like a tidal wave of sympathy and support. Players, politicians, celebrities, fans, sports superheroes – everyone has said their piece about Murray and every word has been in praise of the Scot and his achievements.
In the quiet of the eve of the first grand slam of the year, the main topic of conversation is Murray. Normally the press and the pundits are prattling on about title contenders, rank outsiders and their own – allegedly – informed views on the possible winners. But not now. Not this time. A brave new world of tennis without Murray is about to dawn and it is not a pretty sight.
Sipping an espresso in the sunshine, Mats Wilander pondered the future and, despite the sadness of the situation, he saw a positive side to Murray’s story.
“This is going to move his celebrity to a whole new level,” Wilander said. “I know you guys in the British media know this, but for people outside, for other people, they maybe only saw this angry guy on court, yelling “f***!” all the time – maybe they thought he was a spoiled brat. But now we know why he swore: it was because it meant so much to him. He is the most passionate of all the players, more than the Federers and Nadals – he cares so much.
“Remember when he cried after that first Wimbledon final with Roger? People then started to get it, to see how much he loved tennis and how much he cared. But they see him now – he couldn’t even speak on Friday. And he was prepared, he knew he was going to give that press conference and still he couldn’t speak. He loves tennis so much, it means so much to him. This takes his position to a new level.”
The only man in Melbourne who does not care about Murray’s physical and mental wellbeing is Roberto Bautista Agut, the No 22 seed from Spain. He plays Murray today and while he wishes his rival no harm, he must find a way to cut himself off from the occasion and get on with the business of trying to win his first round match at the Australian Open.
“Andy is one of the best tennis players in history,” Bautista Agut said. “I’ve obviously watched many of his matches on TV and I’ve tried to do things that he does on the court very well. I think everybody knows that every time Andy goes on court he gives 100 per cent. He’s been a fighter all his career and I think this match will be the same.
“I don’t know what shape he is in right now. I didn’t see him play last year. It’s the worst thing in your tennis career when you have injuries and you cannot play or you have to go on court feeling that you’re not ready or not 100 per cent But I hope it’s going to be a nice match. It’s a great experience for me to play in Australia against him in one of his last grand slams. I’ll enjoy the experience.”
For his nearest rivals, Murray’s retirement is a stark reminder that the career of a professional athlete is at best short and, at worst, cut even shorter by physical frailty. Murray is famed for his fitness and his stamina and yet he cannot beat nature: his hip is shot and there is nothing he can do about it. At 31, he and Novak Djokovic are the youngest of the Fab Four who dominated the rankings and the grand slams for a decade: Roger Federer is 37, Rafael Nadal is 32. They may be living legends but they are still just flesh and blood.
“I was disappointed and sad, a little bit shocked, to know now that we’re going to lose him at some point,” Federer said. “But we’re going to lose everybody at some point. It’s just now that it’s definite.
“I think his body took the decision, unfortunately, in this case. I think it must have been a very long couple of years for him now. I remember when I played with him in Glasgow [in November 2017], I know how not well he was. I couldn’t believe he actually played. But it was for a good cause. He felt like he could do sort of the two and a half sets that we played.
“Of course, it hits us top guys hard because we know Andy very well. We like him. He doesn’t have many enemies, to be quite honest. He’s a good guy, Hall of Famer, legend. He won everything he wanted to win. Anybody would substitute their career with his. He’s a great guy.
“It’s a tough one, but one down the road he can look back on and be incredibly proud of everything he has achieved.”
For Djokovic, born just a week after Murray, the feeling of connection is particularly strong. They grew up together, through the juniors and on to the very top of the game. A few days ago, they played a practice match – perhaps the last time they will ever share a court – and the world No 1 saw at first hand just what Murray is putting himself through simply to get to his match today.
“Obviously to see him struggle so much and go through so much pain, it’s very sad and it hurts me as his long-time friend, colleague, rival,” Djokovic said. “It’s sad for me, but for all sport, because Andy is a very respected and likable guy around the locker room. He’s a great champion. He’s a legend of this sport, without a doubt, multiple grand slam winner, two golds from Olympic Games, Davis Cup. He’s had it all.
“It’s really hard to see him going through those emotions, as well, on the court and off the court. In front of you guys [the media] the other day – it touched us all.”
Win or lose today against Bautista Agut, Murray will walk away from Melbourne Park as a champion. The pity for him is that he will be walking away for the very last time.