Ben Coley on Andy Murray: A champion on and off the court

'Andy Murray was no less a champion of women's sport than he was a champion of the men's court'
'Andy Murray was no less a champion of women's sport than he was a champion of the men's court'

There is no hiding place in tennis. It is a selfish sport, and even the most selfless who play it are beholden to that. Some might say that it is a sport which gives back exactly what is deserved, but Andy Murray surely does not deserve this.

Britain's greatest player will retire at Wimbledon, if his hip gets him that far. Surgery in 2018 could not prolong his career in the way that had been hoped and there will surely be no miracle fourth grand slam. He will end with three: twice at Wimbledon, once at the US Open.

While he will regret, of course, failing to take one of the many opportunities he had to add to his collection in Australia, his achievements remain remarkable. Building this level of success in the sport's greatest era puts Murray on the cusp of global greatness himself; in British terms, he is peerless. Murray is not just a three-time grand slam winner, Britain's first since 1977 - he is a three-time grand slam winner who had to compete with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, and to do so burdened by decades' worth of failure, including his own.

He will be remembered not just as a grand slam winner, not just an Olympic champion and the man who almost single-handedly dragged his nation to Davis Cup success. He will be remembered as the man who spoke out, most notably in favour of equality; no less a champion of women's sport than he was a champion of the men's court. Among the many wry smiles and deadpan comebacks, it's his correction of a reporter who had ignored the Williams sisters in stating that the US had been short of grand slam contenders which best sums up the man.

Murray always was a brilliant returner, on the court and off it. At his peak, three or so years past, there was surely no finer athlete and no harder point won than the one taken from him. Unless opponents could somehow get a serve to escape his reach, which required whatever comes after military precision, they were forced to do battle with one of the toughest and most willing players in the sport's history.

He was, of course, fallible - physically and mentally - and it was perhaps only when the latter became clear, when behind the expression and beneath the cursing it was revealed that he cared more than we perhaps thought, that Murray was able to win over the British public. Unlike Tim Henman and even Canadian-born Greg Rusedski before him, the man from Dunblane was not welcomed without completing his initiation, the union-jacked faces of SW19 residents at last daring themselves to fall in love with their great white hope once they felt he really was one of them.

When finally his breakthrough came, on that same Centre Court but under the guise of the Olympics, it was just weeks after he'd lost his first Wimbledon final. In reflecting on that defeat, he revealed that he had apologised to Federer for breaking down - 'you feel like you're kind of attention-seeking or something' - typically self-effacing even in the lowest of moments. But it was those tears he shed which perhaps represented the final piece of the jigsaw, and as luck would have it he would have the chance to put defeat behind him at London 2012, Federer again on the other side of the net.

The performance he conjured less than a month after losing the Wimbledon final must surely rank among the best of his career. Murray was exquisite, evoking the spirit of the Games to dominate against the greatest player in history, when he had every right to wither. All three grand slams that followed owed much to the events of August 5.

As the ultimate prize came the following summer, the first of two Wimbledon victories, Murray remained in the debt of those around him. Tennis is a largely individual sport but it was his wife, Kim, his wider family and coaching staff to whom Murray deflected praise. That appreciation of those who helped build, enhance and support his success was in evidence as recently as Thursday when, the day before he announced his retirement, Murray offered tickets to one Instagram fan who had been courtside to witness his practice match with Novak Djokovic.

This, of course, is nothing new. There are countless tales of Murray selflessly giving something back, such as last October when four women celebrating a birthday at a tennis club were asked if they'd like to hit with him. One later described him as "kind, unpretentious and low-key," and that appears absolutely right. Even in announcing his impending retirement, Murray spoke as though his emotions were personal, unwilling perhaps to quite believe the broader impact he has had.

What happens next will depend on Murray, a husband and father of two who has earned the right to retreat, to cherish moments which he's had to sacrifice before. Yet one suspects that, when the dust settles, he will be keen to give yet more to a sport to which he owes nothing.

Until then, tennis has the chance to give something back to him, and it's hoped that he can make it to Wimbledon and an SW19 swansong, if not quite on his terms then the nearest thing. While the hip issue is clearly serious, it would be a surprise were this warrior not able to overcome the final hurdle of his career.

And what a glorious career it will have been. What a fabulous man he has become. Sir Andy Murray will be sorely missed on the court, but his impact off it will last beyond our lifetimes.

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