The outpouring of sadness and respect in Britain over the news of Andy Murray’s imminent retirement makes it easy to forget the emotional barrier that existed for so long between the tennis great and sports fans in his own country.
Grumpy, sulky, petulant, cold. That was the initial view toward Murray, who will end his career – sometime this year, it seems – as one of Britain’s greatest ever sportspeople as well as a champion of equality, a role model and a shining example of how to maximize talent.
It was a tearful Murray who said Friday his battle with a long-standing hip injury was making his day-to-day life a “struggle.” And it was tearful performance on Wimbledon’s Centre Court years ago which finally persuaded the British public to take Murray to their hearts.
In July 2012 – before he won any of his three Grand Slam titles, his two Olympic medals, or led Britain to its first Davis Cup in 79 years – an emotional Murray broke down in an on-court interview following his four-set loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final.
“I felt like I was playing for the nation,” Murray said, his bottom lip quivering, “and I couldn’t quite do it.”
Inadvertently, it might have boosted his public standing more than winning the title.
In an instant, Murray was humanized. His emotions laid bare, it felt like he was finally accepted by the whole country, not just tennis fans who had long appreciated his undoubted talent since turning pro in 2005.
Murray’s popularity soared and perhaps it was no coincidence that, from that turning point, he became something of a sporting phenomenon in Britain. He won Olympic gold a month later – fittingly on the same Wimbledon lawns – and his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open soon after.
The following year, he became the first British man to win the Wimbledon title since Fred Perry in 1936. In 2015, he inspired Britain to the Davis Cup title. By the time he had won Wimbledon and the Olympic singles title again in 2016, he was firmly in the conversation about Britain’s greatest sports star and the public was enamored.
He was honored with a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017, the same year he rose to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time.
It was no surprise, therefore, that Murray led the news bulletins Friday morning as Brits woke up to the news about his likely retirement, while social media was awash with praise and discussion about his impact on tennis and sports in general.
“Whatever happens next, you’ve done more than you know,” read a tweet from Wimbledon’s official account, above a picture of Murray clutching his face the moment he won the singles title at the All England Club for the first time.
While Murray was widely hailed as the epitome of hard work and determination, his work in championing equality in tennis was also highlighted.
“Your greatest impact on the world may be yet to come,” tennis great Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter. “Your voice for equality will inspire future generations.”
Murray, who was helped on his journey by tennis-coach mother Judy, was the first leading male player to employ a female coach in Amelie Mauresmo and often spoke of wanting equal pay in tennis. In a news conference after a loss to Sam Querrey in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2017, Murray intervened to correct a journalist who said during his question that Querrey was the “first U.S. player to reach a major semifinal since 2009.”
“Male player,” Murray said, in a nod to multiple Grand Slam champion Serena Williams.
“That’s my boy,” his mother quickly tweeted.
That short interjection cemented Murray’s status as a role model for equality.
“I know all of us girls in the locker room are in awe & so grateful for how you always fight in our corner!” Heather Watson, Britain’s No. 2 female player, said Friday. “You inspire me in so many ways and I don’t want you to go!!”
If his hip can hold up, there was a general desire to see Murray make it to one last Wimbledon tournament before bowing out.
Expect the tears to flow then, too.
“He’s too important to Great Britain and Wimbledon history to not have it,” former American player Andy Roddick said.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80