It’s easy to love playing tennis for a living. It’s a freewheeling, piratical way of life. There’s the money, of course, but there’s a lot more to it for the elite. Rafael Nadal clearly loves the way tennis enables him to grind, to lose himself in his work. Roger Federer cherishes his status as the game’s smoothest operator and role model. Novak Djokovic revels in his growing status as man of substance, a leader.
Andy Murray, once the peer of those men as a member in the vaunted “Big Four,” is that rarity, the icon as Everyman. He just loves playing tennis; it’s the thing that defines him insomuch as anyone can be handily defined. He’s thoughtful, articulate, and well-versed in his times, but those qualities don’t steal the shine from his pure love of the game. All pro players are driven by an internal fire, but the flame burns at its purest blue in Murray. And it has nothing to do with winning or losing.
Fans and pundits can sense that about Murray; it’s one of the reasons he is beloved to so many. The do-it-yourself aspect of his game is another reason. Nobody ever became a Murray fan because they fell in love with his somewhat herky-jerky, defense-heavy game. He still retains that gangly quality, and despite great foot speed, he still has a tendency to lumber and shuffle. His style is ragged, his game full of quirks and rough edges. All that makes it easier to put up with those bouts of surly behavior, when he heaps scorn on his team in the player-guest box, or freaks out like some giant, injured bird. These flaws make Murray human; a marketing team would use the word “relatable.”
There are other reasons to admire Murray, though. In 2007, Murray was criticized by some of his peers, including Nadal, for suggesting that tennis had a match-fixing problem and that “everybody knows about it.” The Tennis Integrity Unit was created in the wake of the controversy, and found no shortage of work to do (albeit in the game’s minor leagues). He has been an outspoken advocate for gender equality and walked the walk when he hired fellow former Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo as his coach in July 2014, not long after winning his first Wimbledon title (Murray was the first men’s Grand Slam champion in the Open era to have a woman other than his mother as coach). The decision proved somewhat controversial, but while the team’s two-year record was mixed, Murray continued to stand by Mauresmo. even after they parted ways.
“It’s one of my regrets that I didn’t win a Grand Slam when I was working with her,” Murray said in a Sky Sports documentary. “For a lot of people that was considered a failure.”
He also told The Independent newspaper, “Have I become a feminist? Well, if being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man, then yes, I suppose I have.”
For all that, Murray has never cultivated his persona as an activist of any kind, and he has never indulged in virtue-signaling on Twitter or Instagram. He has studiously avoided becoming embroiled in politics, although he’s more astute than some who wade into them. When Britain left the European Union, the Scot, who was thought to favor remaining in the EU, said only: “It’s important that everyone comes together to make the best of it.”
The overall picture of Andy Murray that has emerged over the years, from his epic struggle to crack the Grand Slam code (Murray lost four Grand Slam singles finals before winning his first), to the tears he fought back after losing to Roger Federer in his first Wimbledon final, to the mysterious “victory salute” (a gesture he made to let friends in straits know he was thinking of them), to the modesty with which he handles his status at home—adds up to that of anti-celebrity.
In that, Murray is not exactly Everyman. He’s a man of uncommon decency. And he loves to play tennis and has recognized that his time is running out.