The Strange Beauty of Seeing Andy Murray Lose

He keeps going. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images

The process of retirement from men’s professional tennis, particularly from the upper echelon of the ATP tour — where the bulk of prize money and endorsement deals and cultural relevance exist — usually begins the same way. The player in question, no longer the physical phenomenon he was at age 20, much less 30, is dogged by months, or even years, of suspicion about the quality of his movements on court. There’s an injury here, a surgery there, and when reality can no longer be denied, the fading star confronts the inevitable and goes out one of a few ways: Some embark on a drawn-out farewell tour (Andre Agassi, Michael Chang) before an emotional, last-match good-bye. Others abruptly call it quits after conjuring peak state one final time. (Pete Sampras). And once in a rare while, a player past his prime simply and poignantly keeps showing up to work, grinding away against the long odds of regaining his championship form.

This is the path Andy Murray has taken.

When Murray first limped out of Wimbledon in July of 2017, struggling with hip problems, he still wore the crown of the sport’s highest ranking, bestowed upon him seven months earlier. In 2016, Murray had won Wimbledon (for the second time), and later in the year, he became the world’s number-one male tennis player, breaking an ungodly, 12-year-long streak of the same three men rotating in and out of the top spot: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. That December, Murray was knighted by the queen. Weeks after the 2017 limp seen round the world, Murray withdrew from the U.S. Open, and later the 2018 Australian Open. He had his first hip surgery and wouldn’t compete again professionally until that June. The player who came back was not the one who left — and thus began the long, strange, and gorgeous twilight of his career.

Early in his playing days, viewers (and the media) latched onto a perception of Murray as dull, and rude, and an unfit heir to erstwhile British star Tim Henman’s throne. He was the guy people were surprised you rooted for when he played against Federer or Djokovic. He mumbled when he spoke. He scowled when he played. But in 2012, he wept as he choked out how grateful he was for the fans in his losing speech at the Wimbledon men’s championship final. “I’m getting closer,” he croaked. Hearts melted. The cultural tide on Murray began to shift. By the time injuries visibly took hold of his movements on court, he was a three-time Grand Slam champion and unimpeachable U.K. icon. He’d also developed into something of a moral conscience for the tour, and a beloved internet-worthy feminist. Andy Murray was a legend; bowing out and into retirement at that point would not have diminished his legacy one bit.

In January of 2019, 12 months after his first hip surgery, Murray reemerged for the Australian Open and posted an image of himself propped next to the trophy given to the men’s champion each year, joking that as a “#5timeloser”, it was the closest he’d ever been to it. (Murray was, and is, 0-5 in the Aussie Open finals.) A few days later, Murray cried (now everyone loved that he was an unapologetic crier) in a press conference, as he explained he’d retire after Wimbledon, in July, if he could even hold out that long. The tournament began, and Murray lost, crushingly, in the first round. In the presser after the match, Murray talked about the pain he was in, and that the (second) hip surgery he’d undergo in two weeks was not a single-minded effort to return to court as soon as possible, but an acknowledgement that if he didn’t recover well, he wouldn’t play again at all. He wanted to restore functionality to his day-to-day life as Andy Murray, the human being — then a husband and father of three — not guarantee an empty pact on Grand Slam number four. Murray eschewed the types of platitudes inherent to famous athlete-speak — the “Well, we’ll see what happens!” or the “I’ll work hard and give it my best!” He laid it flat out, in his quintessential monotone: “I’m really struggling. I can’t walk.” He was 31 years old.

Murray fans new and old began their sad parade of online good-byes. There goes the great Andy Murray, the guy who gave Britain its first Wimbledon men’s champion in 77 years. Who corrected reporters when they ignored the achievements of female players, and argued for pay equality and women’s matches being more frequently scheduled on center court. Who was never actually boring or terrible, but young and misunderstood. Who was 9 years old when a gunman opened fire at his school and murdered 16 students and his teacher. Who turned the Big Three into the Big Four. Who converted public disdain over his grumpy persona into enduring Murray mania.

Then something strange happened.

Murray had his surgery — a “hip resurfacing” — in which the ball and socket but not the femur are replaced. Six months later, he breezed into London and won the Queen’s Club Championships title in doubles so delightfully that for a brief moment, his retirement announcement felt like a misremembered anecdote.

But the win was a mirage. Murray competed in doubles at Wimbledon, too. And there, he lost, twice — first in the men’s doubles in the second round, and then in mixed doubles in the third. He lost his first postoperative singles match in the first round of the Western & Southern Open. The world closed down in March of 2020, and when the courts reopened for the 2020 Western & Southern Open, Murray lost again, in the fourth round. He lost in the second round of the U.S. Open, and in straight sets in the first round of the French. He pulled out of this year’s French Open to focus on Wimbledon, where he lost in straight sets in the third. A scathing review of that performance said he looked weak, and suggested that it was time to face the truth. (Hadn’t he already done that?)

Murray competed in the Tokyo Olympics a few weeks later, in doubles. He lost in the quarterfinals.

The reality of what makes for a successful run on the pro circuit is more grim than images of sweaty victories at trophy ceremonies might suggest. Murray has dutifully endured the slow agony of chronic injury and surgical intervention, the mundanity of recovery, the thousands of other quiet, invisible indignities inherent to aging superstars yearning to reclaim parts of their former abilities.

What’s noble about his comeback is that it doesn’t read as a comeback at all. Murray’s story hasn’t played out as a hero’s journey — nor does he seem to care much if it does. He’s yet to reach the level of play or knuckle-biting arc of a match that fits the traditional sports narrative of a Hollywood ending. He hasn’t mentioned that he’s doing all this, losing like this, to win just one more time, or to prove that with the right touch of mettle, his 34-year-old hip can still deliver as it did when he was younger, and more dour, and still somewhat loathed. When asked why he was still here, he says it’s because his daughter told him to keep playing. So Andy Murray shows up to compete in a strange and egoless gray space, one where he’s neither primetime attraction nor winky relic. And he loses. He loses often and he loses early, sometimes in front of an audience of millions. It speaks to something fundamental about his love of the game, but it speaks more profoundly to the organic human desire to just do something you love, regardless of title or rank or carrot at the finish line.

It is hard to imagine any of the Big Three who have dominated tennis the last 15 years going out this way. Roger Federer doesn’t want to play longer than he can win — longer than he can, in effect, play like Roger Federer. (His recent matches may put that heartbreaking hope to the test.) Rafael Nadal, with his relentless competitive will, may not be suited for the stage of his career when his body doesn’t back him up. (After this year’s multiple injury-related withdrawals, and his stunning loss to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open, this phase may be coming sooner than later.) As for Djokovic, well, apart from the occasional blip, he rarely loses. Perhaps the closest recent parallel to Murray is Lleyton Hewitt, who peaked at No. 1 and won multiple majors in the early 2000s, then played all the way until 2016, reaching only one major quarterfinal during his final nine years.

Andy Murray likely won’t be a dangerous contender for another major title, but it isn’t sad to watch him lose; it’s beautiful. He turns in a knowingly flawed performance when he appears, and it is uncomfortable — perhaps perversely rewarding — to see him play so effortfully against an opponent he won’t beat. He seems perfectly at ease throwing himself into the game — fully, awkwardly — with equal parts abandon and strain. As his audience, we haven’t quite figured out what to make of this presence, of the player who plays outside the bounds of what we’ve known to be true about sport, and about competition, and about winning — the player who reminds us that it was always his choice, not ours, to decide when it was time to go.

Murray will play the Greek upstart Stefanos Tsitsipas in the first round of this year’s U.S. Open. The long-haired 23-year-old is currently ranked third in the world. Murray will probably lose. But we’ll enjoy watching him do so for as long as he’d like.

The Strange Beauty of Seeing Andy Murray Lose