LONDON — This time Andy Murray‘s fuel and fortitude were not enough to see him into the next round under the floodlights. The three-time Grand Slam champion had the Wimbledon faithful daring to dream after two typically stoic performances to reach the third round, but he was left slipping and sliding around Centre Court as Denis Shapovalov brought an abrupt end to his run at this year’s championship.
Though Murray’s competitive nature will see him hold this defeat in little affection, the hope is this week at Wimbledon is the start of a glorious epilogue to his already incredibly successful career. This was his first foray in men’s singles at Wimbledon since 2017, and that Murray was here on Friday evening in the third round is remarkable in itself given he has a metal hip. But this week has left Murray with unanswered questions.
“The support is something I’ve missed, it reminds you why you do the hard work,” Murray said. “The positive part is getting through the matches and feeling OK physically and not sort of getting injured.
“But then there is a part of me that feels a bit like I have put in so much work the last three months, and ultimately didn’t play how I would want and expect, and it’s like, is it worth it? Is all of that training and everything that you’re doing in the gym … unless you’re able to practice and improve your game and get a run of tournaments, is it worth all of the work that you’re doing?”
Murray had played just eight matches this year and staggered practice to manage the workload. But he still felt he came to Wimbledon undercooked, despite all the hard work.
“For me to be able to compete with guys at his level, you know, my game needs to be spot on, really,” Murray said.
But he was quick to add this wasn’t taking anything away from his 22-year-old Canadian opponent. Shapovalov was outstanding, using his jackhammer backhand to push and pull Murray around the court. He showed the sort of form, game management and ruthless ability to drill winners down the line to illustrate why he’s some pundits’ pick to be an outsider for the title. So while Shapovalov is part of the young guard still trying to knock Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer off their top table, Murray’s 2021 Wimbledon will still linger in the British sporting consciousness.
Another year, another batch of Murray memories to cherish 👏
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 2, 2021
It has been a week of reviving old heroes and rewriting sporting narratives. England’s football team beat Germany at Wembley to trigger mass hysteria up and down the land, just their second knockout win in the European Championship in 53 years. Over in the Tour de France, Mark Cavendish, 36, claimed his first stage win in five years. And then over on Centre Court, the bionic man, Murray, was back on main stage replaying hit after hit in front of his adoring faithful.
It was remarkable seeing him back at the All England Club. Just two and a half years ago in 2019, he told the sporting world through tears that he was running out of answers to his chronic hip pain. The surgery the previous year in 2018 hadn’t worked. It looked like he was already at the door of retirement. The Australian Open even played a tribute montage to him as he bowed out in the first round to Roberto Bautista Agut.
The rest of the sport’s farewells and tributes were written. And he deserved to put his feet up: a remarkable career, one of Britain’s greatest athletes ever, the man who ended the 77-year wait for a Wimbledon title in 2013 and who had also won the Olympic gold the previous year, at Wimbledon, in the 2012 London Olympics, and then repeated in Rio in 2016:
But for all his titles, tears and generation-defining play, we perhaps forgot that he loves this sport. He underwent hip resurfacing surgery in early 2019 — effectively where they coat the top of the leg and the hip joint in metal.
The pain eased. And he even found time amid rehab to pick up his knighthood from Buckingham Palace that he was originally awarded in 2017.Then, he began his comeback to the court. He first played doubles at Wimbledon in 2019, but wasn’t quite ready for singles. He later suffered pelvic issues that year, and a positive COVID-19 test saw him ruled out of the Australian Open in January 2021. Then came a spell with a groin injury, so once Wimbledon had ticked around and he received his wild card, he had played only eight matches this year.
Pre-tournament he was reluctant to give a prediction on how he’d fare and was a little tired of the speculation over whether this would be his last Wimbledon. But he spoke of how this tournament was bigger than tennis.
Seeing the crowds at SW19 was a sign of “normality” returning, he said, after the past 18 months of social distancing, masks, lockdown and COVID-19. But then came the qualification: “I’m not going out there to get whacked.” You wouldn’t have caught Murray snacking on strawberries and cream at this championship — that competitive spark never dies. He also continued his bit as one of the country’s great common sense spokesmen, criticizing the meager pay rise the frontline workers received for all their work in tackling the pandemic.
This tournament was as much learning about himself as it was satisfying that itch of wanting to get back onto tennis’ biggest stage. He navigated the week reactively — if he was hurting, he wouldn’t train. He shivered through the ice baths but still emerged full of fire on Centre Court.
All three of his matches this year have been last on Centre Court. Both his first-round win over Nikoloz Basilashvili and his next over Oscar Otte saw the match paused to close the roof and switch on the floodlights. Both times Murray reemerged from the break invigorated and turned the match on its head.
But not Friday. This time Shapovalov broke Murray in the first match of the third set back on court, and he kept his stranglehold on the contest, despite playing against a backdrop of deafening Murray fervour and slipping on the baseline.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Shapovalov said. “I’m just trying to soak in everything before I leave, I didn’t think I could play any better. To play against a legend like Andy, and huge shoutouts to him, he’s truly an inspiration to so many people.”
“I just told him he’s my hero”
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 2, 2021
Yet Murray is his own fiercest critic, and plays with few filters — having slipped twice in the opening two games, he expressed his displeasure at the slippery surface to the umpire and made the point of changing his shoes. At the end of the first set, he’d already turned his back on play to mouth a rebuke at his own frustration as Shapovalov smashed home the set-winning point. He made the same pained gestures to his corner, searching for answers as to why he was firing long, short or into the net.
But he fed off the crowd, a group he learned to appreciate and harness, rather than worry about. He fired beautiful forehands of old down the tramlines and into the applause. He’s still the old Murray who won the hearts of Wimbledon with those titles in 2013 and 2016, even if he doesn’t feel like it.
At the end of the match, as it was Shapovalov’s turn to soak in the applause, Murray headed to his seat with a shake of the head and then raised his arm to recognize the waves of appreciation as he headed off into the depths of Centre Court.
“He’s just starting back up again, it’s going to be amazing to see what he can do,” Shapovalov said.
Murray has already halted the tide of retirement once, and maybe, just maybe, if he can get a run together, he’ll break back into the top 20, but he is unsure how this story plays out.
“Unless me and my team can find a way of keeping me on the court for a consistent period of time and allow me to practice the way that I need to compete with these guys, then that’s when the discussions about what I do next will come in, because I have genuinely put a lot into this to get to this point,” Murray said. “But I’m not being able to practice and prepare how I need to perform how I would like at these events. … Shapovalov is a brilliant player, but I feel like I can do a lot better than what I did this evening.”
Up next for Murray is the Tokyo Olympics, as he looks to defend his crown — he’s going there to win. The hope is this tough return will be more than a mere footnote to his career. Instead, in the years to come, the hope is that these five glorious days at Wimbledon will serve as the moment he started writing the second chapter of his career.