He looks tired. But then he always looks tired. Those slumped shoulders, the pained grimace, the pallor of cold, hours-old sweat on his furrowed brow: this is Andy Murray whether he is winning or losing, whether he is surfing the crest of a wave or getting thrashed by a 22-year-old on live television in front of his loved ones. Even in his finest moments, Murray always had the habit of making tennis look like the hardest sport in the world.

This, however, is different. He looks weak. The constituent parts of shot-making in tennis are many and complex: talent, timing, touch, tactics, agility, musculature. But perhaps the most important ingredient of all is conviction. A great player in a great moment plays a shot in the absolute certainty that it will go exactly where he or she wants it to. It may not always come off, but that conviction powers the stroke, from conception to flourish. And even in his lowest moments, Murray always had that burning black lump of coal inside him, a smouldering kernel of something unbreakable and immortal that you may as well call pure desire. Now, under the blinking lights, it is going out.

There was a moment about midway through the second set against Denis Shapovalov on Friday that you sensed the crowd beginning to turn. Not against Murray himself – such is Centre Court’s unstinting affection for its favourites that you suspect Murray could bite off the head of Rufus the Wimbledon hawk and a good proportion of the crowd would start jeering the hawk – but against the idea that Murray could win. Against the idea that, however unlikely, however hopeless the circumstances, they could affect the result.

It became a different sort of game after that; a different sort of crowd. “Come on Andy” became “come on Andy”. Individual spectators began shouting things out to entertain themselves. In the absence of any real jeopardy, Murray’s adoring public had turned transactional, scavenging for anything – a shot, a moment, a ball boy slipping over – that might somehow justify their lavish investment.

This is, in microcosm, the experience of watching Murray in 2021, especially if you want him to win: a frustrating and feverish hunt for consolations amid the slow, sad decline of his career. Shapovalov wasn’t just better than Murray in his three-set win: he was visibly, embarrassingly better. There was no guarantee that even a peak Murray would have beaten him, let alone a Murray ravaged by injury, short of practice and playing only his ninth grand slam match in four years. The idea that a 34-year-old of limited mobility whose A-game was based on lightning movement could ever challenge for a major title again, let alone win one, felt absurd.

And yet for some reason, you can’t really say that these days. As a nation, we like Murray. Murray is an unalloyed Good Thing. He is a decent man with a wonderful career, and so even his failures need to be bathed in this weird reverential glow, recast as merely an alternative form of triumph. On the BBC, Clare Balding paid tribute to the “courage he’s shown to be back here at all”. Chanda Rubin agreed: “It crosses the lines of tennis. I think he’s given a lot of people inspiration, and the fact that he’s competing at this level is pretty phenomenal.”

Murray waves to the Centre Court crowd after his defeat to Shapovalov. It was only his ninth grand slam match in the last four years.
Murray waves to the Centre Court crowd after his defeat to Shapovalov. It was only his ninth grand slam match in the last four years. Photograph: Florian Eisele/AELTC Pool/PA

There’s one big problem with this vision of Murray as this venerable vessel of hope and human resilience: it doesn’t remotely tally with his own. Murray isn’t some brave young boy with bone disease who needs lollipops and pats on the head. He’s not a favourite pet being taken to the vet for the last time. He’s not even Juan Martín del Potro, a player genuinely deserving of pathos. He’s a complex, conflicted, competitive athlete playing bad tennis, and wondering deep down whether he can physically put in the hours of work and rest required to ever make himself good again.

But then, Murray has always rejected every narrative we tried to project on to him. You say his ruthless approach to hard work and ability to withstand pain is an example of admirable perseverance; he resents that side of him because he believes it hastened his decline. You say his advocacy of equal pay and equal respect for women in tennis makes him a feminist hero; he sees nothing remotely remarkable or noteworthy in any of this whatsoever. You feel sorry for him. He demands that you stop feeling sorry for him.

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And so even at this autumnal crossroads in his career, Murray continues to defy simple exegesis. There are times when he seems to be playing for the buzz, for the love of the game, for the thrill of being out in the lights in front of a crowd. Then there are times when that vision collides head-on with his diminished powers and the inevitability of defeat, and he seems as listless as ever. Part of the appeal of Murray as a player and a person is that he sees both realities equally, without airs or delusions. He was never purely an accumulator of ranking points and precious metal. But nor did he ever conceive of himself as an exhibition.

It feels ridiculous that Murray could quit tennis. It feels equally ridiculous that he could carry on. Perhaps all we can say with certainty is that he owes us nothing but the right to live out the rest of his career on his own terms. Even if he no longer really seems to know what they are.