There was a vivid sense last summer of the very different individuals Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are and why Murray is the one whose company you would travel to the end of the earth to keep.
Murray — an individual so accustomed to the limitations that come with age that his daughter has started observing that he arrives home early from tournaments: ‘Daddy, you lost another tennis match’ — was playing Olympic doubles with Joe Salisbury in Tokyo’s 33˚C heat as if his life depended on it.
The spectacle became almost comical at one stage, as Murray and Salisbury stood nose to nose and screamed: ‘Let’s go!’
Andy Murray’s remarkable comeback to the forefront of tennis continues out in Melbourne
When they lost that quarter-final, to Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig of Croatia, Murray said he felt ‘crushed’. He thanked Salisbury for the ‘opportunity to play’ on what was a very remote outside court.
A few days later Djokovic rocked up for men’s singles and mixed doubles semi-finals that Murray would have given the earth for and the world No 1 showed an utter disregard for the sanctity of Olympic sport.
After crashing to Alexander Zverev in the first semi-final, Djokovic displayed minimal commitment to the second and even less to his two bronze medal matches.
He barely contested the singles bronze and pulled out of the mixed game, leaving his Serbian team-mate Nina Stojanovic without a medal.
As Djokovic (above) sloped off back to Belgrade, Murray stepped into the John Cain Arena and rolled back the years at the Australian Open
An individual’s sheer, unadulterated love of the game they play is so often forgotten amid the sound and fury of elite sport, though in Melbourne across the past few days, Murray has again shown Djokovic what those kinds of values look like.
As Djokovic sloped off back to Belgrade, Murray stepped into the John Cain Arena and rolled back the years. As an antidote to the self-absorption and fabricated sense of victimhood displayed by Djokovic, who has the best medical advice money can buy to help him with his vaccination, it was special. No wonder Murray was cheered to the rafters.
Here, in plain sight, was a manifestation of the limitations so many of us feel as the years roll on: a 34-year-old whose hair is receding, moving around the court with the stiff and slightly awkward gait of one who has a metal hip.
His opponent Nikoloz Basilashvili, tanned and sinewy, walked the court like a man who still travels the length and breadth of the sun-kissed tennis circuit. Murray displayed the paleness that comes with a British winter.
Murray (right) beat Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili (left) to make it through the first round
He moved around the court with the stiff and slightly awkward gait of one who has a metal hip
He was in Melbourne against every expectation, given it was at the Australian Open three years ago that he gave what seemed to be a valedictory speech, streaked with tears, relating how the pain in his hip had become intolerable.
The ensuing surgery has limited Murray physically, though not mentally. What we witnessed as he fought to a five-set win was a defensive performance as fine as perhaps any he has brought down the years; a mesmeric display of retrievals, played out to that quintessential Murray soundtrack of grunts and groans. Sheer effort personified.
An image at the end of it all will live long in the mind. Murray, back in his court-side seat, tilted his head back, closed his eyes and took it all in, his body still heaving with the physical effort. No one asked what his thoughts had been in that moment, though it was hard to avoid the sense that he knows these occasions are to be cherished as time runs through his fingers.
‘A lot of people don’t see what you do on a daily basis,’ Murray said after he had recovered. ‘They don’t see how much you want to win and just make throwaway comments.
Murray (right), back in his court-side seat, tilted his head back, closed his eyes and took it all in, his body still heaving with the physical effort
‘I’ve beaten some bloody good players. I have always found that motivating. If someone suggests I won’t be able to do something, I use it as motivation.’
A 20-hour flight away in Belgrade, Djokovic was in his plush city-centre apartment, dwelling on his brief, controversial time in Melbourne and apparently meeting his agent, whom he has blamed for supposedly ‘ticking the wrong boxes’ and creating a misleading sense of his movements before flying to Australia.
The unexpurgated truth is that no one beyond his own fanbase cares. Tennis has moved on.
Murray might never hold a candle to Djokovic’s form of domination of tennis but in the space of one first-round match he has taught him what humanity, grace and competitive courage look like.