It has been impossible to ignore the notion that Sir Andrew Barron Murray died late last week. Plenty of people remarked to me — some of them not even regular tennis fans — that the first news reports they saw about Murray’s retirement announcement sounded a lot like reports of an impending death.
A few people cited Juan Martin del Potro’s plea to Andy to keep fighting. Others cited the past-tense nature of the way people had begun to talk about Murray, now that the competitive phase of his playing career was about to come to an end.
This comparison with and proximity to death are ever-present in discussions of Murray since his announcement a few days ago. Many people find it unsettling — and rightly so. Nothing about this is comfortable, soothing, reassuring, or fundamentally happy. I emphasize the word “fundamentally” because there ARE some happy elements about this series of events and the recollections they have generated… but those elements are the kinds of things human beings arrive at only after processing the pain and the suffering and the sense of loss which have accompanied Murray’s public — and painful — disclosure.
We don’t want our loved ones to die. Their passage is first and foremost a moment of loss. We would prefer to still have them around. Yet, when we come to grips with the limitations of life and the reality of seeing someone released from physical pain, we move through the stages of grief and work toward the acceptance of what needs to be accepted.
Deaths are necessary, in the sense that we all have to go through them. Fundamentally or inherently happy moments, though? Not really. The happiness comes from a remembrance and appreciation of life, and — for those who believe in God — a faith-based hope in a new life to come. The death itself isn’t pleasant, no matter how necessary or profound and powerful it might be.
The awareness of death — and how smaller points of passage within a life, such as a great athlete retiring, mirror death — was always in the air with Andy Murray since his announcement last week. As Murray prepared for and then played his first-round Australian Open match against Roberto Bautista Agut on Monday, the assessments of Murray — the player, the man, and a mixture of both — kept coming in.
This tweet illustrates the difficulty of completely escaping the awareness that this is a “little death”:
Sloane Stephens: "I hate when somebody dies and everyone wants to be, Oh, my God, they were such a great person. And now he's retiring and everyone's like, He's such a great person. But he was great before and nobody paid attention. It's so sad."
— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) January 14, 2019
Plenty of people might be exasperated with Sloane Stephens for saying what she said, and I reiterate that I completely understand why so many are uncomfortable with her remarks. There is nothing wrong with being unsettled by the way Murray’s impending retirement has been treated or discussed. Discussion about death is supposed to be uncomfortable. Maybe we will arrive at a point in life when talking about death doesn’t unsettle us, but that process — that struggle — is MEANT to be difficult. It is SUPPOSED to hurt. Our walk through difficult places enables us to grow and develop as whole persons.
This journey isn’t fundamentally happy, but happiness can be derived from the struggle if done right.
That, in truth, is the perfect way to segue from these musings about death to what we saw in Melbourne Arena, on a night when Murray’s match started in one way, became something else, and ended with a thematically rich and appropriate mixture of sweetness and sadness. That exquisite blend of happiness and sorrow, of appreciation and pain, of beauty and imperfection, was unforgettable in so many ways. It was epic literature. It was pure poetry. It was a story of a man raging, raging, against the dying of the light.
It was Shakespearean, chiefly in this way: It was Andy Murray’s way of reminding us that though a retirement is a small death for an athlete, it is no death at all for a human person, merely a stage of passage to the new chapter which lies just around the corner.
In this match and this moment against Roberto Bautista Agut, Sir Andrew Barron Murray reminded us that “the valiant never taste of death but once.”
The Old Bard would be proud of this British icon named Sir Andrew.
A match in which Murray refused to passively accept his fate was, itself, an eloquent statement and an elegantly-crafted metaphor for a man who wants to keep playing tennis if his body would cooperate. Everything in Murray’s press conference last week, and then in his post-match reaction, spoke to a desire to want to play at the highest level of the sport.
If he only could, he surely would:
Complete quote from Andy Murray:
"Maybe I'll see you again, I'll do everything possible to try. If I want to go again I'll need to have a big operation, which there's no guarantee I'll be able to come back from anyway but I'll give it my best shot."
— Gaspar Ribeiro Lança (@gasparlanca) January 14, 2019
The refusal to absorb a routine, straight-set loss — the kind of loss which seemed almost certain midway through the third set — was as loud a declaration of Murray’s mindset as his subsequent statements, which allowed for the slight sliver of a possibility that he would try to prolong his career. In this match and in the words which surrounded it — both last week and then after his loss to RBA — Murray has conveyed a consistent and layered attitude to the world:
— A fierce desire to continue playing, but only at a high level
— An awareness that his body won’t allow him to compete at a high level
— Gratitude for everything tennis has given him, in spite of the pain he is and has been suffering
How Murray approached this match, and Bautista Agut, and then the tidal wave of conflicting emotions in the aftermath, was pure Andy, in all the best ways. A match which DID feel like a funeral in the first two sets became a rousing and uplifting spectacle and a damn good contest on the raw merits, a match more compelling than anything else witnessed on an often-ordinary Day 1 of the 2019 Australian Open. Yet, just when it seemed that the fairy-tale ending was about to happen, Murray’s limited body — the body whose pains and aches were evident in those first two sets when RBA won the long rallies Muzz typically used to dominate — returned to the court.
The world got to see in this match everything which has made Andy Murray great and admired and respected and cherished… and everything which shows why his body won’t allow him to become again the player he once was. One can see, in this match and its aftermath, a reality which — at its heart — is profoundly sad: An iconic athlete wants to continue to pursue greatness, but knows he isn’t physically capable of carrying out that chase — at least not now.
Yet, from that sadness of not being able to physically continue doing what he loves, Murray declared to all the world that this was not a funeral liturgy. It was a liturgy whose sermon to any fan or onlooker was to never, ever give up.
Retirement isn’t something Murray desires; it is something he felt — and still feels — he will have to submit to. He is clearheaded and sensible enough not to put his body through a wringer if a process of recovery and restoration is going to be prolonged and painful, but he reminded the global tennis community against Bautista Agut that for all of his logic and wisdom and acceptance, he will move toward his retirement kicking and screaming.
This is the complexity of the past week and its relationship to death in the ways an athlete understands it. This is the duality of competing emotions at work. This is the layered and nuanced reality of life in all its nuances and layers: We can simultaneously hate the details of a situation and yet accept what that situation requires of us and must call forth within us.
This match could have been a straight-set mercy killing, the worst outcome possible.
This match could have become the five-set victory after being two sets down, the impossible dream come true and the story of a lifetime.
In the end, Murray-RBA didn’t reach either extreme. It found a place somewhere between those polarities, a blend of the sweetness and the sorrow, a mixture of things grim and glorious.
It was — poetically — pure Andrew Barron Murray.
It captured a man and a tennis life which combined the growling and the self-castigating hatred of imperfection with a champion’s signature resilience and a refusal to succumb to negative moments.
This match embodied a man’s struggle to climb to the top of his sport in the face of the Big 3… and the ability to carry off that struggle successfully, as shown in his late-2016 surge to World No. 1 and year-end No. 1 with a bunch of prestigious championships at Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the ATP Finals.
Murray’s tennis career was always complicated. It is complicated. It will always remain complicated for all the obvious reasons you can think of.
Why wouldn’t this match, very likely his last at the Australian Open, have been anything different?
This was no death, as much as it might have first felt like one.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Giving Bill Shakespeare the last word on Sir Andrew Barron Murray — in light of everything described and discussed above — does not feel out of place or exaggerated.
One immortal Brit deserves another, don’t you think?