This article was written by Nicole Hunt.
Is it possible we’ve seen the biggest story of the Australian Open this year on the very first day? I had never seen anything quite like the events that occurred within Melbourne Arena last night. When Andy Murray walked out to serve in the fifth set of his first round match at the Australian Open, 1-5 down after overcoming a two sets to love deficit to level up, the crowd was deafening. It’s not usual for an Aussie tennis crowd to cheer the underdog when they come out to serve what might be the final game of the match but this was different. Very different. They were loud and they were persistent and only Andy Murray could make them quieten down. He slowly blew out his cheeks in a long breath trying keep his composure. The stiff upper lip was almost shaky. He stepped back from the baseline amongst the noise and raised his racquet in acknowledgement to the thousands of people cheering him on. His family were in the stands and his mum, well known tennis coach Judy Murray who coached both her sons to tennis success, had tears in her eyes.
Before the tournament started Andy Murray had given a tearful press conference in which he told the world that his career was most likely over. A hip injury had proven too much to overcome and he signaled that the Australian Open would most likely be his last tournament even though he would so dearly love to have a final match at his home Slam in Wimbledon mid-year. So concerned about his injury and the pain with which he was playing, he conceded that he might not even make it that far.
The tennis community reacted with shock, but also a deep compassion and support. Most of the top players, male and female, know that it could have been any one of them whose professional career was prematurely ended by injury. Not everyone has the longevity of Roger Federer or Serena Williams who seem like they will play – and win – forever.
Andy’s pain was plainly evident. His regular service motion looked more like torture over the preceding couple of hours. Every landing on that hard court surface through his injured hip appeared to be agonising, and yet he chased down every ball and pushed through every serve until he had nothing left to give. He was going to go down swinging, and he was not going out on a break of his own serve. That was also evident. He was never going to let that happen, even if he had to play on one leg. At 5-1 in the fifth set he saved a match point, denying Roberto Bautista Agut the victory and forcing Agut to serve it out for himself.
Andy had saved that last service game and the crowd was rapturous. There was at least one more game in him yet.
Roberto’s no slouch on the court having beaten both Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic in the lead up to the Open. It was always going to be a tough match even with a fit Andy Murray, but this was not what Roberto would have anticipated a week or two ago. Now he was playing against Murray, thousands of farewelling fans in Melbourne Arena, and the weight of grief, gratitude and greatness that accompanied a concluding career.
Credit to Agut for seeing it through with grace. He had ‘screwed his courage to the sticking place’ as Shakespeare once wrote and served it out for the five set win and a pass to the second round. Although the defeated player usually leaves the court first to grateful applause, Andy remained in his seat looking equal parts exhausted and relieved. Agut moved to sit with Andy on his bench and then gave a gracious on-court interview that accepted the win but paid credit to Andy Murray not just for that match but for all the matches that had gone before it.
It may have been Andy Murray’s last game, or it may not. His on court interview was gracious and moving, though it appeared to have all the hallmarks of someone who although so tired, was still not quite ready to leave the party. Though he left Melbourne Park last night with tears in his eyes, only time will tell whether that was his final match or if he will be able to take the court at Wimbledon this English summer. If he can, there won’t be a spare seat or a dry eye in the house.
Goodbyes are hard.