Essay News

Adios, Andy

Yesterday (Sunday, Sept. 13), I had the pleasure of watching the entire U.S. Open men’s singles final between Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev.  It was an extraordinary match, with the final outcome in doubt until, after four hours of play, well into the fifth set tiebreaker, Zverev missed on a routine forehand, leaving Thiem the overjoyed but utterly exhausted winner, barely able to hobble off the court to claim his prize.

          While this particular final was more physically demanding than many, it was far from unprecedented in the history of the U.S. Open, or of men’s major tennis finals generally.  Some major finals, at tournaments like the French Open (which still does not use the tiebreaker), Wimbledon, and the Australian Open, have run as long as five or even six hours.  Such matches are a test of courage and physical and mental stamina as much as they are of the players’ tennis ability.  They demand the very best of totally fit young men, compelling them to draw on physical and emotional reserves that in many cases they hadn’t known they possessed.[1]  Such matches are not for the faint of heart—or for those who are in any way infirm.

          Up until about 2017, when his numerous injuries started to take a severe toll on his game, Scottish tennis star Andy Murray might well have been one of the two U.S. Open finalists.  His 15-year career has included three major titles (one at the U.S. Open and two at Wimbledon), eight other final appearances at majors, two Olympic gold medals, a Davis Cup title, and nearly a year as world number #1.  He has also made the semi-finals at ten majors and the quarter-finals at nine more. Over that long career, Murray has earned more than $60 million on the courts, making him the fourth all-time leader in earnings.  Clearly he is one of the sport’s all-time greats.  And clearly, at this point, he has—or should have—nothing further to prove regarding his ability to play the game.

          The memory of what Murray has been makes it particularly painful to see what he has become since his two major hip surgeries, in 2018 and 2019.  At least one of those surgeries involved the insertion of a metal plate.  On the court, he is still the gamer he always was, giving his all on every point and frequently showing flashes of the brilliance and tactical excellence that propelled him to the top of the men’s ranks. But he sometimes misses shots that would have been routine for him prior to his surgeries, and on occasion doesn’t even go after balls that he would likely have hit successfully in the past—not because he doesn’t want to, but because he knows he has no real chance of even getting to the ball, let alone hitting a successful return.

          As I say, the sight of this former world #1, struggling to make shots that in many cases would have been routine for him four or five years ago, is a sad one indeed.  And I can probably empathize more than most, as a near-lifelong tennis player myself who now attempts to keep on playing despite two hip replacements in 2015.  (I confine myself to doubles and to singles rallying, and to clay courts.  A full set of singles, even on a clay court, would likely leave me unable to walk the next day.  If I should be so unwise as to attempt to play singles on a hard court, I’d almost certainly end up in Emergency). 

          Before my first hip replacement operation, I did some reading on the Internet in an attempt to determine the likelihood of my being able to play tennis again after my recovery. The literature I saw suggested that about half of all tennis players are able to return to doubles after the operation, but fewer than 10% are able to return to singles.  This suggests that any sort of competitive singles, let alone world-class singles, including occasional five-set matches on hard courts, is distinctly against the odds for anyone who has undergone such surgery.  Despite these odds, and despite having been in such pain following his first-round loss in the Australian Open earlier this year that he was unable to board his plane back to Britain the next day, Murray has continued to attempt to compete in the majors, entering the same U.S. Open ultimately won by Dominic Thiem.

          In his first-round match against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, a player I have never before heard of, Murray barely survived, requiring five sets and two tiebreakers to get past his opponent.  I did not see this particular match, but am frankly just as glad I didn’t; it would surely have been painful to see Murray leaving the court at the end of the five-set marathon. The commentators said it took all he had to get through the match.  Next up was his second-round match against the young Canadian phenom Felix Auger-Aliassime, who handily dispatched Murray in straight sets, allowing the Scotsman to win just nine games over those three sets.  While Auger-Aliassime was a seeded player for the U.S. Open, and might well have beaten Murray when he was in his prime, or at least given him a good run for his money, I very much doubt he’d have given him this kind of a drubbing.  Hopefully this match and its results have given Murray reason to think seriously about his future in professional men’s singles tennis.  No less than John McEnroe said the same thing after Murray`s loss to Auger-Aliassime.  As a long-time tennis champion himself, he should know.

          Even worse than seeing Murray miss or not even try for shots that would have been routine for him four years ago was seeing him limping around on the court between points and games, looking more like a man of 63 than one of 33. It now seems increasingly clear that if Murray continues to play competitive singles, he will be risking his future mobility, his ability to engage in the ordinary activities of daily life.  Is it really worth it for someone who has been one of the greatest players in the world to risk ending up in a wheelchair so that he can obtain, at best, third-tier status by occasionally, and at great effort and physical cost to himself, surviving into the second round of majors he used to have a decent chance of winning?

          Regrettably—and I say this as one who has always enjoyed watching him play—the time has come for Andy Murray to give up competitive singles altogether, and to start thinking about other things he wants to do with his life.  He owes it to himself, his family, and his fans, as well as his fellow players, not to continue to torture himself any more by putting demands on his much-abused body that it is simply unable to meet. If he quits singles now, and takes a few months off to rest and rethink things, he may be able to continue with competitive doubles, which he said in the past did not cause his body any pain.  Even that is a decision he should only make after consultation with his doctors, his team, and his family.  As for his continuing in singles, we have twice seen the results of that, and they were not pretty. Those results offer definitive proof that Murray will never again come close to being the player he was. If he starts listening to what his body is telling him, his decision should be easy.  I hope he makes it soon, before inflicting even more damage on himself in a futile attempt to continue with competitive singles.   

[1] Readers unfamiliar with modern professional tennis may wonder why I have excluded women from this sentence. The reason is that, even in major tournaments like the U.S. Open, women’s matches are the best two of three sets.  While a three-set match can certainly make considerable demands on players (men as well as women), they are not quite the same demands as those made by five-set matches—particularly five-set matches that go for the full five sets.  Whether there is any justification for having women’s matches shorter than men’s at the majors is a question I’ll leave to wiser heads than mine.

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