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This is a memento mori, but certainly not for Murray

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019 – Page B13

TORONTO -- Were you to watch the Andy Murray retirement histrionics without the benefit of the sound turned up, you'd think the man was dying.

Never before have so many teary pauses been pulled over what has been, and will continue to be, a remarkably blessed life.

Murray got a starring role in men's tennis during its most celebrated era. He earned US$60-million in prize money - five times what John McEnroe made for being twice the player.

He was gifted a celebrity out of proportion with his achievements because he was British during the two weeks of each year when every tennis fan goes all "Breakfast at Wimbledon." Had Murray been German, Russian or what-have-you, he'd be Stan Wawrinka.

How do you sum up Murray's place in tennis history? Excellent at his job. I'm sure you're also good at your work, and I doubt anybody's talking about having your bust displayed in the lobby.

Yet Murray's announcement that a bum hip will imminently force his retirement has sent the tennis world into paroxysms of grief.

Fawning career obits were filed. Colleagues delivered eulogies suitable for the graveside. One fears that most of the 2018 tennis season will be given over to tracking Murray's progress toward a will-he-or-won't-he final curtain at Wimbledon.

Murray pumped that narrative on Monday after losing in the first round at the Australian Open, 6-6, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-2 to Roberto Bautista Agut. "If this was my last match, it was an amazing way to end," he said to the oncourt interviewer. That "if" will keep tennis bean-counters and sponsors in fits for months. As a brand, "Andy Murray" had gotten stale. But "Andy Murray's OneTime-Only, Absolutely-No-Takebacks Retirement Tour?" That's a winner.

All this fuss can't be for Murray the player. He was notable, but only in an "... and, of course, Andy Murray" sort of way. As a member of the Big Four, he was the band's Ringo.

Three major titles over Murray's career puts him in the same performance postal code as Gustavo Kuerten or Lleyton Hewitt.

Not too shabby, but also not flagsat-half-mast material.

The issue isn't Murray the player, but Murray as part of an idea.

Throusgh his connection to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, he represents tennis's endless, early 21st-century golden age.

As he leaves, people have to confront the inevitability that all the rest of them will go as well.

People aren't rending their garments for Murray. They're practising doing so for his better peers.

You have to give Murray this much - right at the end, he's become a trailblazer. Generally speaking, the done thing in tennis is to leave either without much fuss, or in such stuttering fashion that by the end people have grown sick of you.

The concept of a farewell tour is torn from the Major League Baseball marketing guide.

Pete Sampras was the same age Murray is now - 31 - when a bad back forced him out for a year.

Then he showed up at the U.S.

Open in his civvies and quit for good.

It's the one time in sports history you could say of an American superstar that he underplayed his hand.

People missed Sampras. Many considered him the greatest ever.

But they didn't lose their minds.

He was old (by the standard of the time), had done a lot and wasn't going to have to take a job as a Walmart greeter to make the rent.

So, bon voyage.

The departure of one of the game's true greats was softened by the arrival of others. Sampras exited in September, 2003. Three months earlier, Federer won his first Wimbledon. Williams won three slams that year. Tennis was getting more interesting.

As the game got more interesting, people made more money.

The winner's cheque for the men's bracket of the 2003 U.S.

Open was a million bucks. Last year, it was nearly four times that amount. It's been boom times for tennis.

A golden triangle of stars did that - Federer, Williams and Nadal. Murray, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova are satellites of that core group.

Between the six of them, they've won everything, sold container ships full of luxury goods and defined for a generation of casual sports fans what class looks like in a sporting context.

For whatever reason, there is nothing more regal than a great tennis player.

Though Sharapova has fallen hard in public estimation and Williams and Federer are already in what must be the final laps of their careers, Murray is the first to go. And you know this works like dominoes.

If you grew up with these players - everyone between the ages of 20 and 50 did in some sense - that's a bummer. In these uncertain times, we treat bummers as if they were catastrophes, and catastrophes as if they were inconveniences. It's easier to get out of bed that way.

Murray's decision to abandon ship signals the general alarm.

One generation of tweener stars has already been crushed by the dominance of the Federer cohort.

There's no reason to believe the next one will do any better.

There are some comers on the scene. None - save perhaps U.S.

Open winner Naomi Osaka - have distinguished themselves by having a personality.

The most newsworthy young tennis player on the planet is Nick Kyrgios. He is newsworthy because he neither likes tennis nor tries very hard to be good at it. Try to sell Rolexes with that.

Is Alex Zverev going to be a global icon like Federer or Nadal?

I don't care how many slams the guy wins, the answer is no. It's not that Zverev is a poor ambassador, but that it's too big an ask.

Tennis spent a decade on the mountaintop. Murray's exit means we are soon headed back to the middle. You can't see as well from there.

The game finds itself in much the same position golf confronted when Tiger Woods entered his personal and career tailspin: What now?

Well, now it's going to get more boring, less lucrative and a lot less fun. There will be good times again, but perhaps never as good as the ones you just had.

Murray's not worth crying over. But maybe that is.

Associated Graphic

Britain's Andy Murray reacts during his first-round match against Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain at the Australian Open on Monday in Melbourne.


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