After all these years, it’s clear that there’s one thing Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal hate — stopping.
In a sport where the brain can drive success as much as the body, that quality has long helped propel Murray and Nadal to their lofty status as two of the greatest players to ever pick up a racket. Murray has come back from two sets down more than any other player. Nadal has won matches with cracked ribs and torn muscles. He endured pain-killing injections ahead of his 2022 French Open matches and left Paris on crutches after winning that tournament for the 14th time.
As long as they’ve played tennis, they’ve been competing as long as they can stand up straight – even if sometimes they can’t. After a quarter of a century of so much positive reinforcement for that behavior, their brains struggle to live and play only one way.
But aWith the 2023 season coming to an end and next year’s 11-month slog looming, that instinct will lead them down a path that no one else want to follow — chasing the mirage of a glorious, storybook ending that very few athletes experience, especially tennis players, who have to earn any honor on their own, without teammates to carry them to the finish line line. Pete Sampras got it, but only kind of.
With nothing left to prove and their legacies firmly established long ago, Nadal, 37, and Murray, 36, are giving the same answer to a question they’ve faced often over the past two years, as they battle the with sore hips, sore feet and ankles and any number of other injuries just so they can start fights: Why?
Nadal was here in January, after limping to a court in excruciating pain from a hip injury he suffered in a second-round loss to Mackenzie McDonald at the Australian Open — the last competitive match he played.
“It’s very simple: I love what I do. I like playing tennis,” the Spaniard said, his eyes glassy, his psyche shaken once more in an injury-riddled career. “It’s not that complicated to understand, right? When you want to do something, in the end, sacrifices always make sense because the word ‘sacrifice’ is not like this. When you do the things you want to do, at the end of the day, it’s not a sacrifice.”
And it was Murray in June at Surbiton, just outside London, when the eyes of the tennis world were on Paris but Murray was playing lower-level grass events, skipping most of the season clay court to prepare for the grass of Wimbledon, where he believes he has the best chance for a deep run at a Grand Slam.
“I don’t feel like I’m just trying to hang on until the end,” Murray told a scrum of journalists after his opening-round win. “I just want to play tennis because I enjoy it too. Like, my love. It’s not like it’s a huge task for me. I like training. I love to compete. I love trying to improve something and improve it every day and get the most out of myself doing something I love. As long as I’m doing that for the next two years while I can, that’s really what I want.”
Those statements are still going through the aging process.
Nadal has started regularly posting pictures of his training sessions, but he has not committed following an announcement last month from Craig Tiley, the chief executive of the Australian Open, that the 22-time Grand Slam champion will compete in Melbourne early next year. Nadal said he hopes 2024 will serve as a competitive farewell tour for him. There is talk of pairing him with Carlos Alcaraz, his 20-year-old compatriot, to play doubles at the Olympics in Paris next summer.
His uncle, Toni Nadal, who has coached him for most of his career and remains a mentor, has talked about him playing beyond 2024 if he is healthy. Nadal has no promises.
“I appreciate the vote of confidence… I’m training every day and working hard to get back ASAP,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter, in response to Tiley’s statement and a reel of his highlights posted by Tennis Australia.
Murray is without a point following another crushing loss to Australia’s Alex de Minaur in Paris last week. He broke his racket when it was over, losing a 5-2 lead in the third set as well as a match point. Then he said that to the British press he has not been enjoying tennis very much in recent months and it is quite difficult Talks about his future may be imminent.
Nearly six years ago, Murray underwent hip resurfacing surgery that many experts thought would end his singles career. Instead, his post-surgery ranking reached 37 over the summer and the dream of a Sampras-like finish that every aging champion dreams of has come true, at least for him.
And yet, the passage of two decades has dimmed the memories of that one.
Everyone remembers Sampras winning his 14th and final Grand Slam title on home soil at the 2002 US Open in his final match.
As Paul Annacone, his former coach, pointed out, fewer people remember that Sampras hadn’t won a tournament in two years before that and endured months of calls from the tennis cognoscenti to call it quits.
“I told my wife that if Pete wanted to win again and he wasn’t hurt, he would, and he told me I was crazy,” Annacone recalled in an interview when Roger Federer was looking for his glorious send-off.
Also, no one, not even Sampras, knew in the 2002 US Open that his walk-off was a victory. He debated whether to play again for nearly a year before deciding to end his career just after his 32nd birthday.
Novak Djokovic has won nine Grand Slam titles since turning 32. Annacone has no doubt that Sampras has left several championships in his tennis bag. “Don’t put anything beyond the super-elite,” he said.
All told, Murray and Nadal are a half-decade removed from their early 30s. 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 instead of mostly metal.
Nadal said this year that he wants to play all his favorite tournaments in 2024, one last time, to show his gratitude for everything the sport has given him. Recent history suggests that may 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 have arthroscopic surgery on his hip flexor and labrum in June, a procedure his doctors predicted would take five months to heal.
Nadal and Murray have been winners for a long time. Their main enemy today – the aging process – remains unbeaten.
(Top images: Getty Images)