How Much Longer Will Andy Murray Be an Elite Player?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMarch 4, 2016

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 03:  Andy Murray of Great Britain looks on prior to a Great Britain practice session ahead of their Davis Cup World Group 1st round tie against Japan at Barclaycard Arena on March 3, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Andy Murray has finally emerged after a crushing defeat in the Australian Open final followed by rest with his family. He’s a welcome and familiar sight for tennis fans who have enjoyed a decade of top-flight tennis from the scrappy Scottish legend.

It’s fitting that Murray will join his Davis Cup teammates with the spotlight shining on their surprising 2015 Davis Cup championship. He is the new standard for Davis Cup heroism and the everyman symbol who tracks down tennis balls as if humanity depended upon his scampering retrievals to save planet Earth from galactic invaders.

Murray is the No. 2 player in the world and still a mighty force, even if his career has also been littered with heartbreaking defeats to rival legends. If only his great play could last for several more years, if not forever.

Meanwhile, the hourglass relentlessly spills its grains of sand as Murray fights on for competitive glory. Just how much more time does he have left as an elite star?

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 03:  Andy Murray of Great Britain talks during a press conference ahead of the start of the Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and Japan at Barclaycard Arena on March 3, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield
Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

 

The Novak Problem

The older Murray gets, the greater Novak Djokovic plays. It’s like trying to defeat the son of Jor-El whose career streaks closer to a yellow sun. Murray is not kryptonite. He doesn’t have bludgeoning strokes like Stan Wawrinka, offensive wizardry of Roger Federer or youthful potential like Nick Kyrgios.

The sport is also changing. Younger players are striking earlier and with greater offensive clout and risk. Murray’s most elite tennis skill has always been his defensive acumen. He is an all-time great at returning serves and retrieving with quick feet, patiently turning the tables with his offense variety, tennis brain and championship experience.

For now, Murray can use his gifts to outfox younger, more erratic players like Kyrgios or Milos Raonic. But he cannot add more offensive firepower, evolve and keep up with his super Serbian rival.

Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

It’s often been noted that Murray is a lesser clone of Djokovic, but that’s hardly precise. Djokovic has kept growing his offensive firepower with bigger and better serves, more net efficiency and greater understanding of how to attack opponents’ weaknesses and force them into uncomfortable errors.

While Murray claws his way with proven consistency, Djokovic's growth is cutting edge. His athleticism and balance on both sides allow him to drive his strokes. He sees the ball as if it’s in slow motion. He attacks angles like a chess master. Nobody can stop his full-fledged evolution, let alone keep up. Even Murray’s elite familiarity and past success with Djokovic is an old 45 record collecting dust in the digital age.

Murray is a tough fighter and has few weaknesses. He’s improved on clay, but what can he do when Djokovic is faster than a speeding bullet?

Lesser mortals than Murray would be downright discouraged, and it surely cannot be easy for the great Scot, even as he insists that he is still very close to the world No. 1, as noted by Sporting News' Dejan Kalinic.

Most of the matches we played in slams I think have been competitive," Murray said. "Whether that looks the same from the outside or not, I don't know.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 31:  Andy Murray of Great Britain during a press conference after losing the Men's Singles Final to Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day 14 of the 2016 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 31, 2016 in Melbourne, Austr
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

 

The Nadal Precedent

How much time does Murray have as the No. 2 player? Will the tennis gods allow him to steal a third major? Can he hang on with his consistent greatness and bide his time for a Djokovic injury or shocking upset? The more questions we ask, the more tenuous the subject.

Does Murray have three years of more prime tennis? Two years? A few months? Everything can disappear into darkness like a solar eclipse.

In January 2014, how many tennis fans thought super legend Rafael Nadal would lose his defining powers days after blowing out the candles to this 28th birthday and celebrating his final French Open title?

Murray will be 29 years old next month.

Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal (L) shake hands to Scottish tennis player Andy Murray at the end of the men final of Madrid Open tournament at the Caja Magica (Magic Box) sports complex in Madrid on May 10, 2015. Murray won 6-3, 6-2.   AFP PHOTO/ DANI
DANI POZO/Getty Images

Like Nadal, Murray is a grinder, if not quite so intense or vulnerable to knee injuries. He’s always managed the pain with his bipartite patella, but nobody can say for certain it will not give him greater problems late in his career. He depends on his speed and defensive coverage the way that an elk depends upon its legs for survival.

If Murray loses just five percent of his foot speed, that could be enough to knock him from the boundaries of elite tennis players. Or maybe his shots lose a little depth and steam. Perhaps he shrinks further behind the baseline. Old habits die hard.

When Murray’s greatest powers finally wane, there will be no great adaptation into something resembling late-career Federer. It would be like expecting Rob Roy to become Leonardo da Vinci. There’s only one Swiss maestro, something that Murray knows most of all after being a firsthand witness and victim for the lion’s share of big matches the past decade.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 03:  Andy Murray of Great Britain walks onto court for a practice session ahead of the start of the Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and Japan at Barclaycard Arena on March 3, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Jordan M
Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

How Long?

Murray takes care of himself. He has not prematurely aged, and he will not be a classic Hollywood character drinking away the memory of his glory days in a seedy pub. Younger, stronger players will soon pass him by because they have the energy of youth. Recovery between matches will become difficult, and one day he won’t be able to beat players he used to roast.

There are three more majors that basically span late spring through summer in 2016. With another great run or two, he could put himself in position for that third major, if things break his way.

Beyond that, the months get lost behind the clouds and uncertainty throws thunderbolts. To discuss 2017 might be no better than extrapolating to 2027. We’re not sure if Murray will still be lethal and elite by next year.

His fans might understand that his last chances to hold up the world could be a month-to-month contract, always with the tennis gods deciding when to rip it up and show him another path.

Enjoy Murray each time he wins, and especially celebrate his remaining titles. The sun is still shining, but the clock is ticking.

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