MELBOURNE, Australia — When Andy Murray announced that he planned to retire from tennis this year because of chronic hip pain, the news generated the expected plaudits and empathy from the rivals who had shared a locker room with him for years.
The most distinct voices in the chorus of praise, however, were female. In interviews and news conferences and on social media over the years, Murray established himself as a champion for equality and for women’s tennis. In doing so, he became an ally to the WTA tour, whose players have long felt unappreciated and undervalued by many in the men’s side of the sport.
“I’m really bummed for him, individually, but I’m also bummed for women’s tennis, because we just lost a huge spokesperson,” said Nicole Gibbs, a 25-year-old American pro. “Not that he’ll be silent in his retirement — I think he’ll remain really outspoken, and we’ll appreciate that. But it’s nice to see friendly male tennis player faces throughout the year, so that will be sorely missed for us.”
Murray has said he would like to play until Wimbledon this summer, but after a first-round loss Monday to Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut and now weighing another hip operation, he left open the possibility that he may have played the last match of his career.
In more than a decade as a top-10 player, Murray has used his prominent position to be an advocate for women in tennis in ways large and small. After being taught the game by his mother, Judy, Murray became the most high-profile men’s player to hire a female coach when he added Amélie Mauresmo to his team in 2014. He also has made a point of correcting reporters when they omit women from statistics, like at Wimbledon in 2017 when he interrupted a reporter who prefaced a question by saying that Sam Querrey was the first American player to reach the semifinals there since 2009.
“Male player,” Murray interrupted.
Serena Williams, one of the women the reporter had overlooked, praised Murray during a television appearance.
“I don’t think there’s a woman player — and there really shouldn’t be a female athlete — that is not totally supportive of Andy Murray,” Williams said. “He has spoken up for women’s issues and women’s rights, especially in tennis, forever — and he does it again. That’s one thing that we love about him.”
Murray has not always been comfortable with the praise he receives for what he considers simple gestures, or with the label of “outspoken.”
“I haven’t gone out of my way to talk about it,” Murray said in August. “If someone has asked me a question, I’ve given my answer. When a male athlete speaks positively about female athletes, it makes a headline — which is strange, and shouldn’t really be the case, but it is.”
But more than his public pronouncements, Murray has won over female players by acknowledging and validating them in a way few other male players have. The Swiss player Timea Bacsinszky said that Murray was a rare men’s pro who would greet her and her team around tournaments and show his appreciation for her efforts.
“I don’t remember where it was, but he comes to me and he’s like, ‘Oh, great job three weeks ago, you killed it, you were playing so great in the quarterfinals,’” Bacsinszky said of Murray. “I was like, Wow, the guy is looking at the women’s results as well! He just appreciates good tennis.”
Murray prepared last month for a tournament in Brisbane by hitting with Naomi Osaka, the reigning United States Open champion. Osaka said she rued the news that her new practice partner could be leaving the sport soon.
“I felt really sad because I’ve never really talked to him before Brisbane, right?” she said. “Then we started talking. He was so nice. Like, he’s a super nice person. Now I just feel like I lost — he’s not a friend — but I lost someone that could be a friend.”
His appeal crosses generations. Billie Jean King called Murray a “champion on and off the court.”
“Your greatest impact on the world may be yet to come,” King wrote on Twitter. “Your voice for equality will inspire future generations.”
King, who helped the women’s tour get off the ground in the early 1970s, knows how valuable that kind of support has been, and how rare it still is at times.
In 2016, Novak Djokovic, the current president of the ATP player council, was criticized by Murray and others after he said that, after years of gains by women seeking equal pay at major tournaments, men should continue to agitate for a larger share of the pot at combined events. (Djokovic later backtracked, saying his comments were “not the best articulation of my view.”)
And when Italy’s Stefano Travaglia stepped down from his seat on the 10-player council at the end of last season, the council appointed Ukraine’s Sergiy Stakhovsky, a well-known lightning rod, to fill it. Stakhovsky has been dismissive of women’s tennis and its players in recent years, ridiculing the concept of equal pay and making homophobic remarks about the women’s tour.
Stakhovsky’s comments have repeatedly drawn Murray’s rebuke, both publicly and privately. But they also have left women’s pros feeling little support from men’s players when debates around equal prize money have flared up, as they do periodically.
“Not a lot of warmth coming from that side or that perspective,” Maria Sharapova said.
Andrea Petkovic said allies were crucial to the women’s game as it seeks to maintain the level of equality it has achieved, and as it seeks to close remaining gaps. And that is why she said she would miss Murray as well.
“He was always my favorite, and I think it will be a huge loss for tennis in general, but also for the WTA,” she said. “Because even nowadays, when you think everything is equal, you still need men, especially successful men, to speak up for women.”
Murray’s reputation as a supporter of women gained notice far beyond the corridors of tennis. Before the 2017 U.S. Open, he was profiled in Elle Magazine. And last year, when the comedian Sarah Silverman was describing her ideal man in an interview on Ellen DeGeneres’s television show, she said, “I like a masculine man, but he has to be a feminist — that contrast is very hot to me.”
“Like Andy Murray,” DeGeneres suggested.
“Oh my God, like Andy Murray!” Silverman exclaimed. “Yes!”