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Never, Ever Count Andy Murray Out

By Alix Ramsay

As Heather Watson, the last of the Brits, packed her bags and departed from the singles draw, beaten by France’s Fiona Ferro, the Union Jack was rolled up and put away for another year.

Apart from Andy, PTH (Pre Tin Hip), and Johanna Konta last year, the Brits have never been much good on clay.

Fair enough, Dame Timothy Henry Henman, OBE (Order of the Backhand Error), did reach the semi-finals in 2004 but it was a once-in-a-lifetime result.

Tim used to say that he didn’t mind playing on clay; he regarded it as a “challenge” and one that he enjoyed. A sort of Sudoku with rackets: something that fills in the time but doesn’t actually get you anywhere. And after a lifetime of trying, he only ended up winning seven more matches on the red stuff than he lost – he tried but clay was not his thing. But he was just following in a long line of players from Blighty: my people are not much cop on crushed brick.

British tennis player Andy Murray celebrates winning against Rafael Nadal during their Mutua Madrid Open semi final match in 2016.

Then along came the Muzz. He started winning titles on clay; he beat Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic on clay, he reached the French Open final, he reached four more semi-finals in Paris, one of them when his right hip was on the verge of imploding. That it did after his last semi-final is well documented; that he has worked himself into the ground to come back from that is also a matter of public knowledge. But now, after his limp first round defeat to Stan Wawrinka, the vultures are circling.

It all began with Mats Wilander. He watched Muzz quietly submit to Stan’s power and precision and concluded that the Scot should quit. It was time to go. Why should he be taking wild cards at the age of 33 and with, in Mats’s view, no hope of winning when there were youngsters desperate for a chance to prove their worth? All of this he said through Eurosport in his role as analyst and co-commentator.

“I worry about Andy Murray,” Wilander said. “I would love to hear him say why he is out there, giving us a false sense of hope that he going to come back one day.

“I keep getting a little bit disappointed, is it his right to be out there doing that? Why? I did it and I shouldn’t have; it was the biggest mistake I did in my career. I think Andy Murray needs to stop thinking of himself and start thinking about who he was. Does he have a right to be out there taking wildcards from the young players?

Swedish former tennis legend Mats Wilander in action during his match on the Senior Masters Cup in 2019.

“I was 26 when I first retired, came back at 28, played until 32 and there was couple of years I played and should not have taken up the space where there were younger, more motivated players who were better than what I was.

“It’s tough to quit, for sure. By giving us all hope by playing, it’s just not right. I love the fact that he is back and trying. Hopefully he’ll figure out why he’s doing it.”

Before we go any further, let me make this plain: I like Mats. He is a fellow Bob Dylan fanatic; he is a thoroughly good bloke and he is always exceedingly generous with his time and his help. He is perfectly entitled to his opinion – Heaven knows, he knows what he is talking about. But in this instance, I disagree with him. And, as it turns out, I am not alone.

Muzz, obviously, was underwhelmed with Mats’s analysis and posted the Swede’s comments on social media with a big thumbs up and the caption “Love this”. That could make for an awkward meeting in a corridor in some tournament in the future. Because the Muzz made it clear that he intends to play as many tournaments as is possible between now and the end of the year.

Nick Kyrgios, Muzz’s pal and long-time supporter, weighed in, too, posting on Twitter: “Just read what Wilander said about Andy Murray… shut up Mats, no-one cares. Muzz, just know that however long you stay, we all appreciate and enjoy your tennis and banter.’

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (L) of France, Rafael Nadal (2-L) of Spain, Andy Murray (C) of Great Britain, Nick Kyrgios (2-R) of Australia and Kei Nishikori (R) of Japan pose for photographs with the Brisbane International trophy in 2018.

The journos wrote their pieces about whether this was the beginning of the end. Yes, he beat Nishioka in five sets in New York but, then again, he was flattened by Felix Auger-Aliassime in the next round. Are the young men too much for him now? Is he too old and too injured to do anything of note ever again? Should he just admit defeat and quit now?

Alex Corretja, a colleague of Wilander on Eurosport, responded in double-quick time. He used to coach the Muzz and is an old friend of the former world No.1 (and he, like Mats, is also a thoroughly good bloke and he is always exceedingly generous with his time and his help although he has never expressed any interest in Bob Dylan. You can’t have everything…). He offered the counter argument.

Former tennis player and Murray coach Alex Corretja

“Each player has had his own experience and I respect what Mats says because that’s his experience and his own feeling,” Corretja said.

“In my opinion, playing best-of-five on clay in these conditions after such a long time without playing matches, in two-and-a-half years where he hasn’t played much, is not a reference.

“I believe that once he starts the indoor season, he will feel much better, he will play best-of-three and he will get the rhythm he needs to get in shape again for next season. He will have an off-season and get ready most likely to play matches before Melbourne – there he will have a good chance to feel better.

“My advice is to retire one year too late rather than one year too early. Why? Because in that year you realise whether you are capable of coming back, capable of getting back to where you want to be or not. If you retire and you are not sure about it, then you might regret it and think about it for the rest of your life, that you could have gone a little longer.

“I totally understand that Andy is trying to get back to his best, I’m sure he knows it will be very difficult, but you need to give him the chance to see if he at least feels better on the court, no matter if he wins slams again or not, and try to enjoy the rest of his career.”

And given that this is my column and I, too, have an opinion, here it is. It may not have the heft of the luminaries who have commented above but I have known the Muzz for 16 years. So here goes:

One match on a cold, wet clay court in Paris is not a true marker of Murray’s place in the world order.

Andy Murray of Great Britain hits a return to Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan during their match on the second day of the US Open.

When he beat Nishioka in New York, most commentators marvelled at his cussed spirit and his will to win. That he lost to Auger-Aliassime in the next round is hardly surprising: he hadn’t played a four hour and half hour match in more than three years, not since his hip gave up against Wawrinka in Paris in 2017. He was bloody knackered, plain and simple.

A few weeks later, he was taking on Stan. The same Stan who had dodged the US Open to focus on his clay court preparations. Stan on clay is a beast of a man to beat. Stan with, weeks on clay prior to his first match, is a huge beast of a man to beat. Muzz, with little preparation on clay, was always going to be the underdog.

That he went down tamely is surprising. That was not the Muzz we know. But one lousy day at the office is not the end of the world.

Andy Murray of Britain in action against Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland during their men’s first round match during the French Open.

In truth, the fact that he was playing on clay at all was a surprise. When he had two fully functioning hips and was one of the best players in the world, he realised that he needed to take a long time to adjust to the surface. The movement is alien to him; he always needed time to adapt his game to the red dirt. This year, he had no time (a delayed Covid test result kept him at home on his return from New York) and he played like a plum on Sunday. Stuff like that happens. But it is not terminal.

If Muzz comes out next week and says he is done, so be it. It is his choice. Only he knows how he is feeling and how far he thinks he can push his tin hip. But until he says so, no one has the right to tell a former world No.1, a two-time Olympic champion, a three-time grand slam champion and a bloke who won a title (with a tin hip and against Stan in the final) last autumn that he should retire. 

Sorry, Mats, but you are wrong.