Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray push the limits of their tennis careers. What about their lives?


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One wants closure.

Another wants the chance to win another Wimbledon title, simply unable to conceive of a summer without the grass of the All England Club under his feet. 

The third wanted — and still wants — that unmatched adrenaline rush from the cauldron of competition, at least just one more time.

All of three have bodies in various states of major disrepair. All three have spent the past weeks and months running an uncomfortable risk analysis.

How much might I screw up, not just whatever is left of my career, but my life to come? That doesn’t seem to matter, compared with the feeling of competition and adoration they have felt in their muscles and their nerves over the past two decades.

This is what it has come to for the last three standing of the Big Four. For the past six months, and never more so during the past three weeks, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have turned their parts of men’s tennis into a strange derring-do, pushing the boundaries of medical technology and their own tolerances for pain alike. They are playing tennis knowing that each point might be their last, for reasons that even they can’t always put their fingers on, and doing their best to ignore the possibility of a Roger Federer-like finale, limping across the Centre Court grass through a final bagel, unable to manage even a game in his last set in the arena he once owned.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

19 Wimbledons of hurt: Is a more open men’s tournament finally coming to SW19?


“It’s a very fair question that I don’t know the answer to, and I do know the answer to,” Djokovic said Saturday, 24 days removed from surgery to repair a torn meniscus that forced him to withdraw from the French Open on the eve of a quarterfinal match against Casper Ruud.

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Murray and Djokovic have become brothers in rapid surgery recovery as well as in tennis. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Nadal started all this in Australia in January, at the start of a year that was supposed to represent his last go-round — even though he’d undergone major hip surgery six months prior.

The least surprising thing happened after three matches: Another injury, to the muscle not far from where doctors had operated; then abdominal issues; then back issues, all of which turned his life into a will-I-or-won’t-I internal monologue about whether he could somehow be ready for the French Open, a tournament with which he is synonymous, where he has won the title a ludicrous 14 times. 

Just weeks before, he said he was leaning toward not playing. Appearances in Barcelona and Madrid had failed to make him feel as though he could compete well enough to make it deep into the tournament. Given that, he said, he preferred to live with his memories rather than appear for a valedictory lap that could quickly turn embarrassing. A terrible match in Rome did little to change that narrative, but then he had a few hard practices and didn’t feel any pain and then he was walking onto the red clay of Roland Garros once more, a decent but vastly diminished version of himself taking on and losing to one of the tournament favorites, Alexander Zverev.

Nadal is scheduled to walk onto that same court at the end of July for the Olympic tennis tournament. He no longer expects that, or even, possibly, this year, to be his last.

All of that now seems like harmless drama, compared with what Djokovic and Murray have been putting themselves through. 

Murray endured spinal surgery 10 days ago to remove a cyst and ease the pain of his spinal stenosis. Just days before, he’d had trouble lifting his leg to walk up the stairs at Queen’s for his match against Australian Jordan Thompson. Then he spent eight days in a furious rush to attempt to play singles at Wimbledon one more time, against Tomas Machac on Tuesday.

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Murray said he regretted starting his match against Jordan Thompson at Queen’s; he retired injured after five games. (Ben Stansall / AFP via Getty Images)

He didn’t make it. The recovery was too stark, to compete properly, if not to play, so instead Murray and his brother Jamie will begin the doubles competition later in the week, playing a Grand Slam tournament together for the first time, as Andy plays a Grand Slam tournament for his last.

Murray insists that his doctor has told him that the only risk is that his wound might open during play. Things could get a bit messy, but that’s all.

Perhaps. Or perhaps, when he still believed he could take to Centre Court alone, he found a doctor to tell him what he wanted to hear about a procedure that generally takes people roughly six weeks to begin feeling like some version of their pre-surgery selves. 

Scans of his spine are not good. “It’s not in an amazing place,” he said, in what may be the understatement of the tournament. 

So why put himself through this? What is he looking for?


“I’m curious myself,” Jamie Murray said Saturday, a couple hours before his little brother did his best to explain what all this was about. “A sense of closure” was his best guess. 

“I just want the opportunity to play one more time out there, hopefully on Centre Court, and I don’t know, feel that buzz,” he said somberly as he sat behind a microphone. He should get it, with his brother.

This place has been good to him, he said. That’s another understatement of the tournament. Murray is a member of the All England Club and can play here anytime, but of course that’s not quite the same, and if a finale has to come — a finale that he has approached kicking and screaming — Wimbledon seems like the most logical place for it. This is the tournament that made Murray’s career worthwhile in his eyes, ever since he managed to snap an eight-decade losing streak for British men against Djokovic in 2013.

He’s still not certain he’s making the right call by playing at all.

“Whether afterwards I feel like that’s the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do or not, I don’t know,” he said. “But right now I feel like I want that opportunity.”

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Murray and Djokovic’s Wimbledon narratives are long intertwined. (Julian Finney / Getty Images)

That was part of Djokovic’s calculation too, but in an entirely different context. At 37, the same age as Murray, he knows his chances to play Wimbledon the only way he wants to — with a chance to win it — are running out. If there was a sliver of hope for that, even so soon after surgery, he couldn’t pass it up, even if it were to jeopardize his chances to win that elusive Olympic medal, or defend his title at the U.S. Open later this summer.

Djokovic didn’t know he was going to feel that way until he started rehabbing his knee. Each day that passed without pain or swelling or inflammation, the idea of testing his limits tempted him a little more. Taylor Fritz had played Wimbledon 20 days after surgery; albeit at 14 years younger.

Wimbledon has always been Djokovic’s dream tournament, just like it has been for Murray: the one that made the Serb want to pursue the sport, and his 24 Grand Slam titles and counting, above all else. Winning in SW19 seven times has done little to satiate him, or to bring any sense of “been there, done that.” Even Nadal arrived at Queen’s in the summer rain of 2010, days after the French Open, to practice on the grass.

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Nadal has skipped this year’s Championships to prepare for the Olympics. (Simon Bruty/Any Chance / Getty Images)

So he turned rehabilitation into its own kind of competition. How fast could he recover? How fast could he get himself ready to compete with the best players in the world on the most difficult surface?

“It’s this incredible desire to play, just to compete,” said Djokovic, who has been blessed with what looks like a soft first-round challenge in Vit Kopriva, a 27-year-old qualifier from the Czech Republic ranked 123rd in the world.

He knows it doesn’t make much sense to most, certainly not to anyone who hasn’t challenged for the biggest championship in the sport. Maybe not even to his wife, Jelena. There is a feeling he gets playing Wimbledon that he can’t get anywhere else, something he won’t be able to feel before too long, and something he wouldn’t experience simply “playing” the tournament — in case there is any mystery about what the world’s top grass court player believes he might be capable of. 

“I didn’t come here to play a few rounds and prove to myself and others that I can actually compete in one or two matches,” he said. “I really want to go for the title.”

(Top photos: Tim Clayton/Corbis, Meng Dingbo/Xinhua, Mike Egerton/PA Images, Glyn Kirk/AFP, Charlotte Wilson/Offside / Getty Images; Design: Dan Goldfarb for The Athletic)



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