BRAVEHEART BIDS FAREWELL – MURRAY MANIA IN MELBOURNE

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Britain's Andy Murray reacts after a point during his men's singles match against Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut on day one of the Australian Open. (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Melbourne

Bill Simons

In one of his more inventive fits of on-court self-condemnation, Andy Murray once called himself an “absolute turnip.” Yet the Scot is anything but that. He’s had a fabulous career crowded with big-stage triumphs. But it was absolutely painful for him and the tennis world to get through perhaps the most tortured press conferences the game has endured since Arthur Ashe announced he had AIDS.

The other day, amidst tears, Murray had said the end was near. Tonight, we saw why. The aging 31-year old who has battled hip pain for two years and has big troubles just walking his dog, was laboring. His fluid speed was now a memory. Time and again he descended into a kinder, gentler version of “mumble tanks” – his punishing, self-critical soliloquies. He slapped his thigh in frustration, he swept the air with his racket, he modestly raged to no one in particular and glared at the heavens.

Still, heaven knows, the passionate Melbourne Arena throng knew full well that the end was near. Not to be deterred, Scottish fans draped in blue and white flags cheered the best athlete to ever emerge from their land of lochs. Aussies yelled “C’mon Andy!” Fanatics offered a staccato chant: “Andy, Andy – he’s the man. If you hear us, clap your hands!” Even Spaniards partook of the Murray mania. “Vamos, Andy!” they yelled.

But something was off. Andy winced and limped. His once fearsome sprints now were modest. His foe, the considerable veteran Robeto Bautista Agut, was ruthless. The Spaniard’s drop shots seemed cruel, his sharply angled groundies were unforgiving. Time and again Andy seemed to be gasping for air. Dare we imagine that he was hoping to re-ignite the fury that was so fierce just over two years ago.

On this pleasant Aussie night a Spaniard, the No. 22 seed, was not so pleasant, and the great Scot was no longer as great as he once was. The three-time Slam champ, the two-time Olympic Gold medalist, the former No. 1 and Davis Cup champ who once dictated, was far from his previous form. Margins in tennis are razor thin.

Yes, Murray teased us with hints of past brilliance – laser backhands, wicked slices, and many a nasty drop shot. There were many “I won’t give up” corner-to-corner rallies, and he unleashed a cross-court forehand blast just when all seemed lost. Then he hit a brilliant backhand winner to break back to even the third set – the crowd exploded with glee. Even squawking gulls seemed to be pulling for the bowl-legged man in black. Could a Murray miracle be in the cards?

After dropping the first two sets, Andy fought nobly and blasted a forehand volley winner to win the third set. He howled to the skies. His brother and much-celebrated mother were elated – he wasn’t done. As Bautista Agut’s level dropped slightly, Murray continued his comeback, to the delight of the throng, as he prevailed 7-4 in the fourth set tiebreak to force a decisive final set.

The five-time Aussie Open finalist who had given us 14 years of gritty battles would not go gently into the night. Once sullen, now beloved, in an era when Roger and Rafa dazzled, Murray forced us give him our respect, if not our love. But ultimately tonight was his last hurrah Down Under. Bautista Agut broke in the third game of the fifth set and then put down the hammer.

The final “Let’s go Andy!” chants echoed in the rafters and the Aussies offered a last marathon cheer. Murray’s long Australian run came to the finish line as he fell 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-2. After 4:09 the battle ended. A mighty but wounded warrior offered his Australian goodbye. The stadium’s amps blasted “We Are the Champions.” The legends of the game offered generous video kudos. Murray did leave the door open. Although he could have a complicated hip surgery and come back, the reality is that one of the greats stepped off the Australian stage tonight. But Murray’s Melbourne memories will long remain. As long as there’s a pro game this braveheart will be celebrated for his will, his grit and his love.

A TALE OF TWO REBELS – JOHNNY AND PAT CASH: Over the years, players have come to awards ceremonies following the finals of tournaments in many a different outfit. At the US Open, Tracy Austin showed up in a pinafore, and just last year Serena wore a tutu. At Wimbledon, stylish Roger Federer broke out an old-school cream blazer to celebrate his win. On Sunday in Auckland, Tennys Sandgren wore a t-shirt featuring one of America’s greatest characters, Johnny Cash. It showed a mug shot of the iconic figure after he was arrested for drugs and it read “American Rebel.” This was not the first time a Cash fellow drew interest at an award ceremony. After he won Wimbledon, Pat Cash famously started the tradition of clamoring up to the Friends Box to celebrate and after he won a tournament in Japan which was sponsored by the tobacco brand Salem, he said, “I would like to thank the sponsors, even though I think it’s a disgrace to smoke cigarettes.”

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY: Heather Watson is called “the Guernsey Girl.” But the only WTA player to ever emerge out of that English Channel island of Guernsey hasn’t seen the curiously named big-screen movie,  “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.”

BACK-TO-BACK TEARS: It was once said that there are no tears in tennis – but not really. Famously Roger Federer wept at the site of Rod Laver when he won in Melbourne in 2009 and there were plenty of other times he wept as well. Now tears have flowed in back-to-back women’s Slams. As many in the crowd booed, Naomi Osaka cried during the 2018 US Open awards ceremony. Here the women’s singles competition began with a 6-0, 6-0 win by No. 30 seed Maria Sharapova. And as her foe, Harriet Dart, darted from the court, the Brit sobbed. Similarly, the often appealing Brit Heather Watson, who suffered a lopsided loss, broke down during her small press conference.

BIG JOHN’S BIG FALL: John Isner, who had a fine 2018, again lost in the first round of the Aussie Open. The 6’ 10” vet actually fell to someone taller than himself. Seven-foot Riley Opelka broke Isner in the fourth set. Isner admitted he’s prone to slow starts. He quipped, “I was 0-6 last year. Now I’m on my way to 0-6, so we’ll see if I can top that. I’m 0-2 right now.”

JUDY RAISED A GOOD YOUNG LAD: Andy Murray drew praise from many quarters, but we liked Sloane Stephens’ homage. “I think he’s one of the nicest guys on tour,” she said. “Everyone is always like, ‘He’s so dry, he’s not funny.’ [But] he’s probably the funniest person on tour…I posted a lot of videos of random people sleeping, and he would always message me and be like, ‘It must be your great conversation.’ He just didn’t get enough credit. So unrecognized…I hate when somebody dies and everyone wants to be, ‘Oh, my God, they were such a great person.’ Now Andy’s retiring and everyone’s like, ‘He’s such a great person.’ But he was great before and nobody paid attention.

“It’s so sad. It’s tough, he was crying, that’s just a situation, like, you cannot see a grown man, I’m like, Oh, no. It’s so sad…Now I’m going to cry. It’s just too much. I’m going to miss him. He’s been great for the game, especially for women…We have been lucky to have someone support the women’s game like he has…I hope people follow in his footsteps…[It’s] very unique that he has that awareness…Judy raised a good, young lad. I honestly love Judy…When I saw her in Beijing, I legit fell in love with her. I wish she was my second mom.Then when I saw..the whole Murray family, I just adopted them. I love her. It’s not easy raising a kid that plays tennis…and for her to have two kids that are just over the top, I think that’s pretty cool.”

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