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Why maverick Andy Murray defined an era of thrilling tennis (and rivalry)

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Andy Murray’s legacy in tennis is full of many firsts.

Sporting history is characterised by eras, and eras defined by rivalries. And, tennis fans have witnessed some of the greatest: Borg-McEnroe, McEnroe-Connors, Evert-Navratilova, Seles-Graf, Sampras-Agassi. But nothing like the Big Four where a quartet ran riot for more than a decade. With Andy Murray’s loss at Australian Open last Monday, however, this era has ended.

Murray might still play at Wimbledon, probably make his beloved tournament his swansong arena. But for all practical purposes, it doesn’t matter. Tennis has forever changed.

Three Grand Slam titles, 11 slam finals, 14 Masters 1,000 titles, one Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) year-end championship, and two Olympic gold medals. These are statistics good enough to make anyone the second-best player of their generation, third-best perhaps if one gets really unlucky.

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Not for Murray who, for more than a decade, has had to contend himself with being the fourth-best—the perennial demarcating line between the superhuman trio of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and their other exceptionally talented yet human compatriots.

Murray, for no fault of his own, has always kept the audience on tenterhooks. The British crowd perhaps more than anyone else. He has frequently tempted us into believing the improbable: That a transition into the league of the Big Three is just around the corner. That ‘Big Four’ isn’t a misnomer conjured up by media but a reality soon to be materialised.

That it is not a composite 3+1 but indeed a monolithic 4. That he doesn’t necessarily need Lendl’s guidance, and can win even when he endlessly berates himself and his players’ box in the middle of a crucial match.

Quashing our hopes though, Murray always managed to regress into what can only be termed an oxymoronic insipid brilliance. Bursts of flair punctuated by a mortal’s push to persevere.

And not due to any lack of effort. Injuries have played their part. The historic Wimbledon victory in 2013 was followed by back troubles, a surgery, and an unremarkable run that lasted the entire 2014.

Well, unremarkable by his standards. A memorable finish as World No.1 in 2016 raised hopes that Murray’s moment had finally arrived. With Djokovic experiencing a dip in form, and Nadal and Federer making a comeback after injuries, it was Murray’s time to go on a sustained run.

Win 3-4 more slams. Perhaps surpass Becker, tie McEnroe.

The pinnacle had already been reached though. Murray underwent surgery for a recurring hip problem, came back, struggled, came back again, and finally announced his plans to retire last week.

Hip injuries are difficult to recover from, and not everyone can make repeated comebacks from injuries—like Nadal so often does.

In what might prove to be his final match, Murray again did the same—raised our hopes only to fall a bit short of fulfilling them. We admiringly excuse him this time though, unlike how we grudgingly have on so many other occasions. We know his physical condition.

We know that Roberto Bautista Agut is a formidable opponent and no pushover. Murray was expected to lose in straight sets. At best, he could sneak in one, we thought. Down two sets to love, he took the match to a fifth-set decider.

But the end was anti-climatic. The scoreline read: 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (4-7), 6-2.

It’s now time to reminisce about a great career. Feel nostalgic about it. Ask, answer, and analyse for ourselves this: As someone who managed to stand out against the trinity of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, albeit only for brief periods, what legacy does Murray leave behind in tennis and otherwise?

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For starters, he provided us a rivalry when we needed it the most: Djokovic versus Murray. Agreed, at 25-11 it’s lopsided in Djokovic’s favour and isn’t talked about as much as Fed-Nadal, Nadal-Djokovic, and Djokovic-Fed rivalries. But think again.

From 2011 onwards, Djokovic has, for most periods, simply dominated the sport. While Nadal and Federer provided good challenge, they were also often found wanting either due to injuries or a relative lack of form. Murray filled the vacuum on such occasions. Though never quite getting the better of his better rival, Murray gave many fans the hope that at least Djokovic can be stopped (by someone not named Federer or Nadal). If not often, then at least sometimes. He ensured that the sport doesn’t become a one-man show.

Murray, a Scot, also leaves behind an enduring legacy in British national imagination. Scotland might separate from the United Kingdom at some time in the distant future, but the latter will claim Murray as its own for posterity. After all, he ended the British people’s 77-year wait in 2013 to become the first ‘British’ man to win a Wimbledon singles title after Fred Perry in 1936.

He also brought home two Olympic gold medals in singles, and was the pivotal force in the British team that won the Davis Cup in 2015. No wonder then that Wimbledon is planning to erect a statue of Sir Andy Murray, the knighted champion, at the All England Club.

More importantly, Murray will always be adulated for his vocal support for the cause of equal prize money on both Women’s Tennis Association and ATP tours. For being a pioneer and hiring former World No.1 Amelie Mauresmo as coach. For his correction—‘first male player’—when a journalist called Sam Querrey ‘the first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009’.

For the tribute that tennis great and 12 slam-winner Billie Jean King gave to him on his retirement announcement.

In the end, one can only say this for Murray’s contribution to tennis: Unfortunate he might be to have played alongside three of the greatest players in men’s tennis history, but fortunate were we to witness him push even these legends to their limits.

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