When somebody – or something – dies, the reaction is usually as much if not more about those reacting than the person or thing itself. And so it’s been with Andy Murray’s announcement that he will retire no later than Wimbledon this summer due to a right hip injury.
That announcement – made at the Australian Open, set to get underway Monday, Jan. 14 – has understandably cast a pall over the tournament. The women on the tour, past and present, remembered a man comfortable enough in his own skin to champion women’s tennis.
“My heart breaks,” said Kim Clijsters, who came back to tennis after retiring and having a baby and then retired for good four years later in 2012. But Billie Jean King, ever the resilient human rights activist, added, “…remember to look to the future. Your greatest impact on the world may be yet to come. Your voice for equality will inspire future generations….”
Reaction has been most revealing, of course, among the men, who have found themselves suddenly gazing into the dark mirror of their futures on the tour. After offering elegant praise of Andy, 31, Roger Federer responded to a reporter’s question by acknowledging that he, at 37, was thinking about his own swan song and hoped it would be at a place like Wimbledon on his own terms.
Others are clearly unwilling “to go gentle into that good night.” Juan Del Potro, who has battled back from injury so many times, was defiant in his support of Andy.
“Please don’t stop trying,” DelPo wrote, “Keep fighting. I can imagine your pain and sadness. I hope you can overcome this. You deserve to retire on your own terms, whenever that happens. We love you @andy_murray and we want to see you happy and doing well.”
That’s vintage DelPo, the tour’s great, big, protective teddy bear. But sometimes heartbreak reveals a side of someone that you barely imagined, as this from the tour’s reigning bad boy, Nick Kyrgios, who wrote:
“You will always be someone that impacted the sport in so many different ways. I know this was never the way you wanted to go out, but hey, it was a heck of a ride.
“You took me under your wing as soon as I got on tour, and to this day you have been someone I literally just look forward to seeing.
“You are one crazy tennis player, miles better than me, but I just want you to know that today isn’t only a sad day for you and your team, it’s a sad day for the sport and for everyone you’ve had an impact on. Which leaves me, big fella…I was actually a little bit of a younger brother to you.
“Anyways, I just want you to know and, I’m sure you already do, everyone wants you to keep fighting and to keep being you. Good luck at the Australian Open, Muzz. I’ll be behind you.”
Elsewhere, reaction was more predictable. Rafael Nadal, 32, who’s had extended absences due to bad knees, was characteristically stoic and philosophical about the man whom he remembered as “a bit of a bad boy” when he was young and whom he has embraced as a friendly rival ever since the two of them and Novak Djokovic began chasing Fed as teenagers.
“We will miss him,” Rafa told The Associated Press. “But today is him. Tomorrow another one. We are not 20 anymore. Our generation, everyone is more than 30s.”
Rafa’s comments also alluded to something that few outside sports really understand: A rival may deprive you of titles but he also makes you a better player. Might Andy have won more than three Grand Slam championships without the other members of the so-called Big Four – Fed, Rafa and Nole (Djokovic)? Sure, but they helped make him the player he became, just as he helped fashion them. As Aristophanes said, you know your true worth in a rival. Or as Martina Navratilova said, “You’re only as good as your opponent.”
Andy himself alluded to that in playing Nole, who has perhaps been his greatest rival. They grew up together on the junior circuit beginning at age 12 – Nole being a week younger – and have been doubles and practice partners. Nole – off the tour for a year and a half with an elbow injury and his own dark night of the soul – admitted it took him a while to absorb the news.
“What you are trying to do is nothing short of brave and inspiring,” Nole posted on Instagram. “I met with you the other day and couldn’t really verbalize my compassion for what you’re going through. As an athlete, fellow tennis player and friend, I respect and fully support you every second of this Australian Open and every next attempt to compete at the highest level. Whatever happens, I will always cherish our amazing matches over the years and be grateful for those experiences.”
And that’s what friends do. Maybe they can’t share everything you’re going through. Maybe you don’t want them to. But they are there on your personal Calvary, offering their presence, their support, even if it’s just silent, even if it’s just in the mind miles away.
Few things are forever – not a career, not a life – but friendships and accomplishments, those no one can take away from you.
Not even love lasts forever. But the memory of love does.
“Tennis will come to an end for us all, but the friendships will last a lifetime,” fellow player Grigor Dimitrov wrote, “What you’ve done for the sport will live on forever. I’m hoping for a strong and healthy finish for you, my friend!”