When an athlete retires, it is a little death. People start speaking about him in the past tense, as if he were truly gone instead of just moving on to another chapter of his life.
But in a way, athletic retirement is a kind of death. Few occasions remind us so much of our mortality as the thought of a seemingly invincible body now broken down or past its prime. Few engender so many memories and what-ifs, particularly if you identify with the athlete.
Few sports offer that identification the way tennis does. A team like the New York Yankees has a host of players to adore (and, on occasion, vilify). But a tennis match has only four players at a moment at best. And, if you’re a singles player, then it’s just you — and all those people out there who see you in themselves and themselves in you.
Perhaps that’s why the reaction to the retirement of Andy Murray — whom I’ve written much about on this blog and in my other life as an editor at WAG — has been so poignant. Here’s someone done in by a hip injury at 31 — my God, 31. No wonder Juan Del Potro, who’s had his share of injuries, said in effect, “Say it ain’t so” — keep fighting. (In an emotional press conference before the Australian Open gets underway Monday, Andy, in great pain, said that he will try to play on through Wimbeldon this summer.) There were gracious tributes from Billie Jean King and Nick Kyrgios, tennis’ reigning bad boy, who recalled an older player who “took me under his wing.”
In the beginning, it was easy to make fun of Andy, the fourth in tennis’ Big Four that includes Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. If Fed was the John Lennon of the group; Rafa, Paul McCartney; and Nole, Ringo; Andy was George Harrison, the one you tended to overlook. With a defensive baseline game similar to Nole’s, only less so, a scruffy handsomeness and an expressive temperament, Andy could appear petulant, easy to satirize. After Nole won the US Open this past summer, an interviewer played the clip of his toddler son, Stefan, running from the TV as he saw Andy on-screen during his 2016 Australian Open final contest with his father. Then there was the 2013 Australian Open final in which Andy was distracted by a feather, leading to all sorts of “Forrest Gump” memes.
But Andy turned out to be one of the good guys, though we may not have always appreciated that, a man unafraid of his feminine side who has championed women on and off the court and has a tender spot for animals.
His record speaks for itself — a two-time Wimbledon champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, a Davis Cup champ, winner of the 2016 ATP World Tour finals and 2012 US Open men’s finals and former world No. 1, perhaps the finest athlete Great Britain has produced to date. If his pain-filled physique and relative youth at retirement — Fed’s still going strong at 37 — offers a wistful what-might-have-been, his record suggests that careers, like life, are what they are. The brilliant ones may be short (Vincent van Gogh, James Dean) or long, but they’re all brilliant.
When I think of Andy, I think of a cold night in 2014, March 3, when I saw him play Nole in an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden on World Tennis Day. He was resplendent in teal and more than willing to play sidekick to Nole’s Djoker, as they exchanged moon shots and pretended to quibble over line calls. At one point, they pulled out their cell phones and took selfies together, and I was reminded of what Judy Murray, Andy’s mother and first coach, once said about them, that they were like twins, having been born a week apart in May 1987 and grown up together on the junior circuit.
There they were with the cells at the net — chasing each other and a dream.
The poster from the event hangs in my home office. I’ll always remember that night.
Thanks for the memories, Andy.