At last, Murray is being recognized as one of the greatest athletes

At last, Murray is being recognized as one of the greatest athletes

In the meantime, the other members of the Big Four—who have dominated the men’s game since 2005—will soldier on.

MELBOURNE—So many questions will be answered in both the men’s and women’s game as a year of high promise and anticipation kicks off at Melbourne Park. But, sadly, the talk in the magnificent new Players’ Pod, stuck onto the side of Rod Laver Arena, was all about a man who almost certainly will not finish it.

Andy Murray has said he will try and play through to Wimbledon, but may not get that far. He told me during another of his hellish pre-season workouts on Key Biscayne just before Christmas that he was always in pain. Now, it seems to have become too much to bear.

Murray will play his first-round match against the tough Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut on Monday evening in the Melbourne Arena, formerly known as Hisense. It is a stage he likes and the crowd will be with him. So will the locker room. Even those attached to some of his great rivals, like Marian Vajda, long-serving coach to Novak Djokovic, were full of sympathy for the Scot when we spoke yesterday.

“It is very sad for the game,” said Vajda. “But no one should play in constant pain. It will be sad without him.”

In press conference, Sascha Zverev, a young man who can only dream of emulating Murray’s record—but may be capable of doing so sometime in the future—spoke up for the two-time Wimbledon champion, refuting the way Andy has frequently been portrayed in the media.

“I don’t understand that,” said Zverev, whose physical trainer, Jez Green, worked with Murray for years. “Andy is one of the funniest and coolest dudes out there.”

There was sympathy, too, from Rafa Nadal, who knows what being injury-stricken is like.

“If you feel that you are not competitive for the thing that really makes you wake up every morning and go on court with passion to practice, to improve," said Nadal, "then is so difficult, no?”

Passion—it is one of the most important characteristics shared equally by Roger Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, and it has been the Scot’s passion for the game that has driven him forward, through the pain and the sacrifice to become one of Britain’s most successful athletes. Now, at last, he is being recognized as such.

In the meantime, the other members of the Fabulous Four—who have dominated the men’s game to an incredible degree since 2005—will soldier on. Vajda says Djokovic is “fine, no problems”; Federer says he is amazed to be still in the Top 10 at the age of 38; Nadal, experimenting with a new serve, says he is feeling good after foot surgery.

To my mind, the biggest question of the new season is how the remaining trio will fend off the increasingly potent challenge of the Next Gen. Everywhere you look, the new faces are making the presence felt.

The tall, muscular Russian Karen Khachanov, now ranked No. 10, ended 2018 in a blaze of glory by outhitting Djokovic in the final of the Paris Indoors; Zverev also got the better of the Serb while winning his biggest title at the ATP Finals in London.

But there are plenty of others, not least Australia’s new hope, Alex de Minaur. Aussies usually find themselves given a nickname, and the 19-year-old is now being called Demon—which fits because no one really knows how to pronounce his name. It seemed appropriate in Sydney on Saturday when, because of rain, the Demon had to play two matches in one day—first the veteran Frenchman Gilles Simon and then another very experienced campaigner Andreas Seppi of Italy in the final. A 7-5, 7-6 victory over Seppi gave de Minaur his first ATP title. Almost certainly, it won’t be his last.

There are opportunities for some young Americans in the first round. Frances Tiafoe starts against an Indian newcomer Prajnesh Gunneswaran, while Taylor Fritz will be hoping Britain’s burgeoning star—the left-handed American college educated Cameron Norrie—will be tired after reaching his first ATP final in Auckland on Saturday. Norrie lost to an older American, the 27-year-old Tennys Sandgren, who set himself up for another good run at Melbourne Park by winning his first ATP title. Last year, the tennis player with the appropriate first name shocked Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka on his way to the quarterfinals.  

After a long time learning how to make the most use of his massive serve, Reilly Opelka will contribute to what may well be the tallest match ever played at Grand Slam level. The 6-foot-11 youngster will meet the 6-foot-10 John Isner. Prepare for tiebreaks. But don’t despair. Under a new ruling, they cannot go further than two points past 10-10 at this year’s Australian Open.

At the other end of the height scale, Australia’s Ashleigh Barty, who might reach Opelka’s waist on tip-toe, played some terrific tennis while losing 7-6 in the third to the tall Czech Petra Kvitova in the Sydney women’s final, and goes into a first-round encounter with Thailand’s experienced Luksika Kumkhum as Australia’s big hope.

As for the US Open champion, Naomi Osaka continues to be as entertaining in press conference as she is on court. Last week, she castigated herself for appearing not to try in the Brisbane semifinal (“I was thinking too much of the final, I think that was the problem” she said) while yesterday she talked about her shyness and worry about telling jokes.

“If I’m talking to someone one-on-one, it just stresses me out, because if I tell you all a joke, 50-50 chance at least three of you are going to laugh," she said. "I don’t know if it’s a pity laugh, but at least it’s a laugh, right? If it’s one-on-one and that person doesn’t laugh, like, I just want to leave….”

To say Naomi is different would be an understatement. She is growing up before our eyes, and one can only hope she remains as fresh and funny and engaging as she is right now.

Like everyone else, Osaka had a word for Murray, whom she had never met before they practiced together in Brisbane.

“For me, I felt really sad (after his announcement). I had never really talked to him before Brisbane, right? Then we started talking. He was so nice. Like, he’s a super nice person. Now I just feel like I lost—he’s not a friend—but I lost someone who could be a friend.”

And then we got one of those Naomi smiles. 

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