TENNIS

At 35, Andy Murray continues to fight, carried by his love of tennis

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Having earned over $62 million in prize money and being knighted by Prince Charles, Andy Murray doesn’t need to achieve another sporting feat for his family or his country in his lifetime.

Yet here again is Sir Andy in Washington, sweating shirt after shirt amidst mind-numbing humidity, berating himself during a two-hour practice Friday in the run-up to the Citi Open every time he threw a return of serve over the baseline or in the fetch.

“I love this sport,” Murray said when asked what drives him to continue competing at 35 despite having a surgically repaired hip with a metal implant. “That’s basically why I’m back and why I wanted to continue: because I love the sport.”

Tennis gave Murray his all, as he said in a high-profile interview, a towel draped around his neck as he sat on the metal bleachers of a court at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center after the coaching. The first round of the tournament is Monday.

Originally from Glasgow, he first traveled to America when he was 11, he recalls. He was also able to visit South America. And at 15, he moved to Spain to train at an academy.

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“I absolutely loved it – learning about different cultures, meeting new people and having some independence,” Murray said.

Tennis introduced him to his future wife, Kim Sears, with whom he has four children, three girls and a boy aged 1 to 6.

He also brought trophies and triumphs he doesn’t list – among them three Grand Slam titles, two Olympic singles gold medals and the distinction of being the only man to break the chokehold that Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal held onto world number one. 1 in the rankings for 18 years, from February 2004 to February 2022. Murray also restored a nation’s sporting pride by becoming the first Briton to win Wimbledon in 77 years in 2013 and again in 2016.

But the past few years have been difficult, marked by injuries and often debilitating pain.

After leaving the top 800 in 2018 and undergoing a second hip surgery in 2019, Murray faced the prospect of living without the sport he had been playing since he was 3 years old.

At 31, he wasn’t ready for that.

“Tennis has given me an incredible life,” Murray said. “It also gave me a purpose every day. There’s a routine because you’re always trying to improve and get better at something. I enjoy that process.

He therefore embarked on the long work of returning, convinced that if he could overcome the injuries, he was capable of playing good tennis again.

At 6-foot-3 and a lean 181 pounds, Murray is now wiser about managing his body. His training – both on the court and in the gym – is less about logging hours of ball-striking and power plays and more about purposeful, purposeful work.

“I probably could have done a little more when I was younger,” he reflected.

As for his strengths, Murray boasts deft touch and a wide repertoire of shots, including a steady two-handed backhand, faithful slice and volleys, efficient serve and, at his peak, an even better return.

He was always a shrewd tactician, son of Scottish tennis coach Judy Murray.

“In terms of tennis management, he’s exceptional,” said former player Brad Gilbert, who coached Murray in 2006-07. “He has a great knowledge of what he does as a player and what his opponent does.”

To this base, Murray added data and analysis, crediting his on-and-off coach Ivan Lendl, the Czech-born former No.1, for introducing this element to his game.

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“He doesn’t talk a lot,” Murray said of Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam champion with whom Murray won his three majors. “He gives fairly simple messages and doesn’t complicate things too much. But he is interested in data and analysis, which interests me as well. And he’s a hard worker by nature and he obviously knows how many hours and effort it takes to get to the top of the game.”

Murray had long considered the serve and return of serve to be the most important shots of the game.

The latter was once a force but has let it down lately. In Friday’s practice against Arlington native Denis Kudla, he was the source of considerable frustration and more than one swear word.

The problem, Murray later explained, is that as players have gotten bigger and stronger over the past six years, the first serve has become more of a weapon. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of return matches won on the whole tour fell by 2 or 3% compared to 2016.

In Murray’s case, he confessed, the fall was precipitous – down 14%.

“If I can change that and I can improve on that, then that, over time, should make a big difference to my results on the pitch,” Murray said.

He brought a similar analytical bent to broaden his perspective on matters off the pitch.

He was not particularly outspoken as a rising star in his twenties, nor particularly informed. “To be perfectly honest,” he said, “I was in my own tennis bubble and wasn’t really focused on anything else.”

Today, Murray is seen as a statesman of the game, willing to use his platform to champion causes he believes in, such as the need for domestic violence policy on the men’s circuit, equality opportunities and compensation for female athletes; racial and social justice; and the importance of vaccines amid the pandemic.

In March, Murray announced he would donate his award for the year to UNICEF’s program to help Ukrainian children. Citi Open President Mark Ein announced Saturday that the tournament will match any money Murray wins in Washington and create an online portal for tennis fans to contribute to.

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“What’s happening in Ukraine is horrific,” Murray said. “You can never put yourself exactly in their shoes; I am aware of that. But it has to be absolutely terrifying, heartbreaking and scary. I wanted to do something, and the only thing I can probably offer is to donate money to try to help children who are displaced from their families.

Murray traces his awakening to working with Amelie Mauresmo, the former No. 1 he hired as a coach in 2014, and the skepticism and double standard he encountered following the hiring of a female coach.

“Amelie was the world number one and a great player, and a lot of men I worked with [as coaches] were nowhere near that,” Murray said. “But if I lost a match, no one ever asked me if it was because of a [male] coach, whereas when I started working with Amélie and I lost, the questions were ‘Do you feel like he’s the right person?’ A lot of people on TV were like, “Oh, he needs to change coaches. Even the people on my own team, I stopped working with them because it was a problem for them too.

“It made me realize there’s a problem out there on that. And it’s something that opened my eyes to other things. So I just felt like , when I saw what I perceived as injustices, I tried to talk about it.

As he prepares to kick off his hard-court preparation for the US Open, Murray continues to push to get the most out of himself and the team around him.

Seeking more power and spin, he experimented with a new racquet this year before concluding that the acclimatization wasn’t worth it, so he returned to his familiar frame. He changed coaches in March, bringing back Lendl, who will be in his box for the US Open, and adding former player Mark Hilton to push him further as a traveling coach.

“A coach is there to challenge you,” Murray said. “I like to debate. Even though I’ve played about 900 games on the circuit and been there a very long time, I still feel like I can learn.

And he is making great strides. In March, he scored his 700th career victory, which is part of his goals. And he went from world No. 135 at the start of the season to 50th. His next goal is to improve his ranking enough to be seeded in major tournaments.

“There are a lot of people who think maybe I shouldn’t play,” Murray conceded. “But I love tennis and I love competing, and I feel like I can do better than where I am today. If I get to a point where I don’t feel like I can improve or maybe things go backwards, so maybe that would change where I am.

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