As the first tennis grand slam of the year begins, it’s impossible not to glance at the bigger picture.

This tennis season is, almost certainly, the beginning of the end for two of the game’s greats; Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal.

Murray will, at least, pick up his racquet at this year’s Australian Open whereas Nadal’s venture down under was fleeting; soon after landing on Australian soil, the Spaniard headed for an MRI scan before promptly withdrawing from the tournament citing a muscle tear.

Both men, despite their contrasting fortunes when it comes to playing in the season’s opening grand slam, however, have a similar feel around them when it comes to the 2024 season.

Murray and Nadal, aged 36 and 37 respectively, have both admitted this could well be their last year as professional tennis players.

Few observers were in any doubt that retirement wasn’t too far away for either Murray or Nadal.

What did come as somewhat of a surprise, though, was for both to admit that retirement is now, almost certainly, within touching distance.

Murray, in particular, is clearly reluctant in the extreme to hang up his racquet.

The Australian Open is a fitting time to assess where Murray’s career currently is.

It was here, after all, in 2019, the Scot was afforded what was effectively a retirement ceremony by the organisers of the Melbourne tournament, with the biggest names in the game all recording Murray send-off messages.

However, as we all know, four years, and a metal hip later, Murray is still plugging away.

This year’s Australian Open, though, feels like the most important grand slam for Murray in quite a while.

At the turn of the year, he revealed that this season could be his last.

It’s his first time admitting publicly quite how close he is to walking away from the sport in which he has been a professional for 20 years.

The first half of 2023 was, for Murray, relatively good.

Some decent results, some good performances and a push into the world’s top 40 was, by anyone’s standards, encouraging.

But the second half of 2023 was, for the Scot, considerably more disheartening.

Disappointing results, disappointing performances and injury issues made the back-end of 2023, in Murray’s words, “not very enjoyable”.

And it’s considering this that brought him to admit that a replication of those months, during which he won only two matches in his final five tournaments of the year would see him likely hang up his racquet.

Glasgow Times: Andy Murray

And this is why this year’s Australian Open is so vital for the Scot.

Five finals at this tournament – his most recent being in 2016 – makes it his most successful grand slam when it comes to reaching the latter stages. It’s a surface on which and an environment in which he’s well suited

And psychologically, a good start to the year is vital.

Every elite sportsperson is more than aware of the value and importance of momentum when it comes to form; similarly, every elite sportsperson is cognisant of the danger of a loss of momentum and how difficult it can be to generate good form when your season is pockmarked with poor performances and results.

Murray begins his campaign in Melbourne against the number 30 seed, Tomas Martin Etcheverry, from Argentina and it’s a match that’s both dangerous but also winnable.

Last year, they played twice, winning one each.

But if Murray wants to get this year off to a positive start, these are the types of matches in which he must prevail.

After all, he’s unlikely to return to a standard that will see him beat Novak Djokovic or Carlos Alcaraz but going by the start of last season, there’s no reason to suggest he can’t reach a standard that could see him compete with the next tier of players – something that would likely stave off retirement at least temporarily.

Nadal, in contrast, seems more at peace with the prospect of retirement than Murray.

The Spaniard and his wife had their first baby last year and Nadal has long been at pains to stress that there’s more to him than merely being a tennis player.

Glasgow Times: Rafa Nadal withdrew from the Australian OpenRafa Nadal withdrew from the Australian Open

The Spaniard said early in this comeback that his primary aim was to be at his best by the time the clay season begins and so while his withdrawal from the Australian Open was, of course, disappointing, Nadal himself didn’t seem overtly disheartened or discouraged that his overall timeframe for returning to full health would be disrupted.

Certainly, if Nadal is going to make a mark on the tennis world one last time, it seems sure it will be on clay, the surface on which he has dominated for nearly 20 years.

And if that is to happen, he still has time in which to return to full fitness.

Murray’s timescale, however, is more pressing.

While the clay season will not be a priority for the Scot, the summer, which includes both Wimbledon and the Olympic Games, certainly will be.

Grass has been Murray’s most successful surface in terms of grand slam wins while the Olympic Games holds a particular place in his affections having won gold in both 2012 and 2016. 

In whichever way, and at whatever point, the end of Murray and Nadal’s careers ends-up playing out, appreciating every ball they hit from now till retirement is a must.

Both are one thousand matches into their careers so it’s quite something to acknowledge that we might be able to count on two hands how many more appearances they’ll make as professional tennis players.

We’ll probably never see the very best of these men again. 

But, hopefully at least, we’ll see glimpses of it in the coming months.