Andy Murray is cruelly discovering few sporting greats get to script ending they deserve

Andy Murray looks dejected
Andy Murray's chances of bowing out at Wimbledon now look slim - PA/Zac Goodwin

It is just as well that Andy Murray has never formally anointed any tournament as his last. Quite apart from the fact that he treats questions about his retirement date with contempt, he knows that tennis, by its mercurial nature, militates against definitive endings. When he said in 2019 that his hip pain had become too much to bear, the haste to give him a fitting send-off left him on court watching a lachrymose video tribute after a first-round Australian Open defeat. Nine months later, with a resurfaced hip that some surgeons predicted would make him an occasional doubles player at best, he won his 46th ATP Tour title in Antwerp.

This year’s Wimbledon, though, has long felt like the logical end point. Torn ankle ligaments, a misbehaving back and a succession of unusually one-sided losses have all conspired to persuade him that this season should be his final act. And where better to stage the final curtain call than Centre Court, where, with that stunning triumph in 2013, he lifted one of the most stubborn curses in British sport. But at 37, with a body so battered that it deserves to be featured in The Lancet, Murray is finding that while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

The likely six-week recovery period for his latest operation, this time on a spinal cyst, rules out Wimbledon and potentially the Paris Olympics, too. On paper, it looks the perfect emotional pairing: he is the immortal two-time champion in one and the only man with two singles gold medals in the other. But tennis has a habit of ruining these symmetries even for the greatest.

Roger Federer had a golden chance to leave Wimbledon in triumph, holding two match points against Novak Djokovic in the 2019 final. Instead, with his troublesome right knee betraying him two years later, he lost his last set on the fabled grass 6-0 to Hubert Hurkacz, the only bagel of his All England Club career. The end, when it eventually came in 2022, tugged at the heartstrings, with Federer and Rafael Nadal delivering a display of co-ordinated crying to rival an American high-school drama. Except the backdrop – a meaningless Laver Cup doubles match, and a bizarre mini-concert by Ellie Goulding – was hardly what most had in mind for such a titan.

Roger Federer cries during his farewell in 2022
Roger Federer's farewell in 2022 tugged at the heartstrings - AFP/Glyn Kirk

It was nothing like the alpha statement that Pete Sampras managed, beating Andre Agassi in 2002 to win his fifth US Open and then flying home to California, never to play a competitive match again. Seldom does sport confer such gifts, especially on those who have already announced they are retiring. Sometimes, stars decide afterwards to walk away on the ultimate high, mindful that the sensation will be impossible to replicate. Australia’s Ashleigh Barty claimed she had fulfilled all her dreams on winning her home slam in 2022, forsaking tennis at the age of 25 to start a family. Nico Rosberg applied a similar rationale on becoming Formula One champion in 2016: psychologically frazzled by the strife at Mercedes with Lewis Hamilton, he resolved it was best to depart at the summit, rather than midway through a painful descent.

Nico Rosberg celebrates bring crowned F1 world champion
Nico Rosberg bowed out on a high as F1 world champion - PA/David Davies

Murray has consciously avoided specifying a time and place for his goodbye. Plainly, it is a moment that he is frightened to contemplate. How will he fill the void left by all the graft and the grind? Does he coach, as his former mentor Ivan Lendl was sporadically tempted to do? Does he run a tournament, like his brother Jamie at Queen’s Club? Or does he accept the easy money of life on the punditry sofa? It was intriguing to see him disdain such a sinecure in a recent interview, arguing that he preferred the adversarial nature of football analysis, rather than the vanilla consensus that can prevail in tennis.

By his own admission, Murray is not happy about being branded a retiree. He has four young children, he is still in formidable condition, and he has not the faintest idea what he wants to do with the rest of his life. You start to appreciate, in this context, why he resents being relentlessly badgered to say when he is going to give it all up.

Such is his cumulative sacrifice, Murray should have the chance to walk off Centre Court in the way he intended. It is the setting where he redrew the parameters of British tennis, showing his compatriots that it was possible to achieve far more on those lawns than lavishly remunerated failure. But sport, in the end, owes even its finest practitioners nothing. The dream finales rarely materialise. Deep in his psyche, Murray understands this, with his recent barren years standing as testament to his capacity to put in prodigious effort for minimal reward. You just wish, given the turmoil he is experiencing now, that he could have seen the end coming sooner.