Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and the search for an elegant and glorious exit | ET REALITY

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After all these years, it’s clear that there’s one thing Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are terrible at: quitting smoking.

In a sport where the brain can drive success as much as the body, that quality has long helped lift Murray and Nadal to their lofty status as two of the best players to ever wield a racquet. Murray has come back from two sets down more than any other player. Nadal has won matches with broken ribs and torn muscles. He endured painkiller injections before his match at the French Open in 2022 and left Paris on crutches after winning that tournament for a record 14th time.

While playing tennis, they competed while they could stand upright, even sometimes when they couldn’t. After something like a quarter century of so much positive reinforcement for that behavior, their brains are programmed to live and play only one way.

but aAs the 2023 season draws to a close and next year’s 11-month slog approaches, that instinct will take them down a path no one else can. wants to continue: chasing the mirage of a glorious, storybook ending that very few athletes get to experience, especially tennis players, who have to earn all the glory they can on their own, without their teammates carrying them to the finish line. goal. Pete Sampras understood it, but only more or less.

With nothing left to prove and their legacies long solidified, Nadal, 37, and Murray, 36, have been giving essentially the same answer to a question they have faced often over the past two years, as they battled against bad hips, sore feet and ankles and many other injuries just to be able to start games: Why?

Here’s Nadal in January, after limping to a stand in excruciating pain from a hip injury he suffered during a second-round loss to Mackenzie McDonald at the Australian Open, the most recent competitive match he played.

“It’s something very simple: I like what I do. “I like playing tennis,” said the Spaniard, his eyes glassy and his psyche shaken once again in a career plagued by injuries. “It’s not that complicated to understand, is it? When you like doing something, in the end the sacrifices always make sense because the word ‘sacrifice’ is not like that. “When you do things you love, at the end of the day, it’s not a sacrifice.”

And this was Murray in June in Surbiton, outside London, when the eyes of the tennis world were on Paris, but Murray was playing lower level events on grass, having skipped most of the clay season whipped to prepare for the Wimbledon grass. where he believed he had the best chance of going far in a Grand Slam.

I don’t feel like I’m trying to hold on until the end,” Murray told a group of reporters after his first-round victory. “I just want to play tennis because I enjoy it too. I love it. Not that this is a huge task for me. I love training. I love competing. I love trying to get better at something and getting better every day and getting the most out of myself doing something I love. As long as I do that for the next few years while I can still do it, that’s really what I want.”


Murray’s competitive advantage is not diminishing (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Those statements are still going through the aging process.

Nadal has begun regularly posting photos of his practice sessions again, but made no promises following an announcement last month by Craig Tiley, chief executive of the Australian Open, that the 22-time Grand Slam champion would compete in Melbourne early of the next year. Nadal has said that he hopes 2024 will serve as a competitive farewell tour. There is talk of him partnering Carlos Alcaraz, his 20-year-old compatriot, to play doubles at the Paris Olympics next summer.

His uncle, Toni Nadal, who coached him for most of his career and remains his advisor, has talked about him playing beyond 2024 if he is healthy. Nadal doesn’t make promises.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence… I am practicing every day and working hard to get back as soon as possible.” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter, in response to Tiley’s statement and a highlights reel posted by Tennis Australia.

Murray was less than optimistic after another heartbreaking first-round loss to Australia’s Alex de Minaur in Paris last week. He broke his racket when it was all over, having lost a 5-2 lead in the third set and a match point. He later told the British press that I hadn’t enjoyed tennis much in recent months and some tough Talks about his future could be in sight.

Nearly six years ago, Murray underwent hip rejuvenation surgery that many specialists thought would end his bachelor career. Instead, his post-op ranking reached 37th over the summer and the dream of a Sampras-like finish that every aging champion longs for came to life, at least for him.

And yet, the passage of two decades has clouded the memories of that one.

Everyone remembers that Sampras won his 14th and last Grand Slam title at home, at the 2002 US Open, in his last match.

As Paul Annacone, his former coach, has pointed out, fewer people remember that Sampras had not won a tournament for the previous two years and had endured months of calls from tennis insiders for him to resign.

“I told my wife that if Pete wanted to win again and he wasn’t injured, I would do it, and she told me I was crazy,” Annacone recalled in an interview when Roger Federer was looking for his own glorious farewell.

PETE-SAMPRAS-2002-US-OPEN


Sampras lifts the US Open trophy in what was his last match (Timothy A Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

Furthermore, no one, not even Sampras, knew at the time that the 2002 US Open triumph was his victory. He hesitated for almost a year about whether he would play again before deciding to end his career just after his 32nd birthday.

Novak Djokovic has won nine Grand Slam titles since he turned 32. Annacone has little doubt that Sampras left some championships in his tennis bag. “Don’t leave anything beyond the super elites,” he said.

All that said, Murray and Nadal are half a decade away from turning 30. Murray is desperate for another deep run at a major tournament, but he hasn’t played in the second week of a Grand Slam since 2017, when his right hip was made of bone and cartilage rather than metal for the most part.

Nadal said this year that he wants to play all his favorite tournaments in 2024, for the last time, to show his gratitude for everything the sport has given him. Recent history suggests that could be a struggle.

His chronic foot injury caused him to miss the second half of 2021. Injuries to his foot, ribs and abdominal muscles limited his play in the second half of last year. The injury in Australia led Nadal to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his hip flexor and labrum in June, a procedure from which his doctors at the time predicted it would take him five months to recover.

Nadal and Murray have won so much for so long. However, its main opponent now, the aging process, remains undefeated.

(Main photos: Getty Images)

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