Tokyo 2020 – Paul Hayward: Andy Murray 'gets' Olympics – how he parked his ego to chase every last thrill
Andy Murray is embracing the Olympic Games again as he bids for his greatest win of all – a third straight gold medal. The Brit is up and running in the men’s doubles alongside Joe Salisbury, while he begins his singles campaign against Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday. Paul Hayward looks at how the 34-year-old just ‘gets’ the Games.
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Such is the scale of the Olympics that even the biggest celebrities appear as mere mortals in the swarm. Andy Murray, Britain’s finest tennis player since Fred Perry in the 1930s, was never averse to leaving his fame at the door and joining the masses.
Murray loves the Games. He ‘gets’ them. And that sense of belonging helped him to a surprise first-round doubles win with Joe Salisbury over the number two seeds, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert on the first morning of action in Tokyo. It was a grand start to his probable Olympic valediction.
Murray, now 34, is the Olympic men’s singles champion of 2012 and 2016 and doesn’t know what it’s like to leave that competition without gold. Two appearances, two triumphs, would have slaked the thirst of most players but Murray returns for the hat-trick, three weeks after his physical toil at Wimbledon evoked El Cid needing to be strapped to his horse.
In doubles this is Murray’s fourth Olympics. His first was at Beijing way back in 2008, when he posted his best result: a round-of-16 exit. He lost in the first round in London and Rio. But he was back for more on Court 5 of the Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo before the greater challenge of the singles, where Novak Djokovic is on course for a 'Golden Slam' - Olympic gold and all four Grand Slams in a single year. Djokovic has already won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon.
Few would fancy Murray to stop that annexation but his eyes are fixed on another medal as he begins his singles titles defence against Felix Auger-Aliassime. “I'm aware that it's not going to be easy," Murray says. “But for me it would be probably my best achievement if I could do that after everything that's gone on the last few years. I'm motivated for that reason alone. I still believe that I can do that. I know this could be the last one for me. I want to go out there and leave everything out on the court, fight for every single point."
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Long ago in his struggle against infirmity Murray made a mental shift, concluding that win-ratios, prizes and deals meant less to him than his love of playing and being in an elite environment that will soon be closed to him. He parked his ego in favour of chasing every last thrill. Defending the title of double Olympic champion might seem an obvious step. Yet Murray was gallant to head to Tokyo knowing he’s more likely to be deposed than end up as top dog again.
Five years ago on a flight to Rio, Murray was amazed to be told Britain won one gold medal at Atlanta in 1996. The glorious world he knew was London 2012. He was euphoric to rejoin the team that had painted London red white and blue. The affinity he felt for Team GB burned in his eyes. The plane ride to Rio was the start of another consuming adventure. He seemed humbled to be around top athletes from so many sports and was interested in all of them. It wasn’t the multi-millionaire darling of Centre Court who carted his bags onto the plane but a willing volunteer who just wanted to be part of it.
The British Olympic Association had other ideas and chose him ahead of Nicola Adams and Katherine Grainger to carry the flag in Rio, where he beat Juan Martin Del Potro in four sets in the final, four summers after his brilliant campaign in London. Stan Wawrinka, Marcos Baghdatis, Djokovic and finally Roger Federer were overwhelmed by the sense of destiny Murray brought to tennis at London 2012, where he was the country’s first male Olympic champion since Josiah Ritchie in 1908. In the Wimbledon final a month earlier Murray had lost to Federer in four sets.
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And that easy straight sets win over Federer was the making of him as a big game hunter (he also won silver with Laura Robson in the mixed doubles). Murray had yet to win a Grand Slam tournament. But that summer he won the 2012 US Open, then the 2013 and 2016 Wimbledon titles. The first of those ended a wait that stretched back to Fred Perry in 1936. In a golden 12-month run, Murray was Olympic, US Open and Wimbledon champion. With his injuries, hip operations, and positive Covid test before this year’s Australian Open, he hasn't progressed beyond the last 32 of a major championship since 2017 - the year he was knighted.
The statesman role hangs heavier this time round. Britain’s highest ranked players, Dan Evans and Johanna Konta, were forced out of these Games by positive coronavirus tests, which brought Murray’s brother Jamie back in as Evans’ replacement. Those great Davis Cup brothers are imperishable.
Sixteen years after he turned pro, Murray has four children under five and is ranked 104. Those diverging numbers tell the story of a great career drifting to an end. Except that Murray never really drifts. His impressive doubles win on day one helped clear the gloom of his early Wimbledon departure and affirmed his status as an Olympic idol who still belongs. His very presence in Tokyo reaffirms the power of the Games to make everyone equal - and everyone grateful just to be there.
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