WHEN an athlete is over 30, every sub-par performance they put in is presented as irrefutable evidence that they are past it.

You hear it in football all the time. When a young player has a couple of bad games, it’s because ‘youngsters are inconsistent’. When an older player has a couple of bad games, ‘his legs have gone’.

My own opinion is that you should always try to resist such sweeping judgement of athletes in general. Everybody, and every body for that matter, is different, and how robust and durable each athlete is to deal with the wear and tear of sport at the top level varies.

Sooner or later, of course, time catches up with everyone. Particularly when they have suffered major injuries. And that is why I am currently fearing the worst over Andy Murray, a guy who in my view, is not only the greatest Scottish athlete we have ever produced, but also simply a great Scot. A true example you can hold up to your kids as a role model, both on and off the court.

The former world number one took on the current main man Novak Djokovic in a practice match this week ahead of his return to a first grand slam since 2017 in the Australian Open. What was meant to be a reassuring tune-up turned into a morale-sapping reality check, with Murray claiming just two games before calling it a day at 4-1 in the second set.

His struggles have led to pundits speculating on his future, with Patrick McEnroe, the former Grand Slam doubles champion, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if Murray retired if he isn’t competing at the top level by the end of the year.

If there is one thing that following Murray’s career all these years does to you, apart from add the odd wrinkle here and there, it is to condition you into never writing him off.

When he was defeated by Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final in 2012 and stood sobbing on Centre Court, a nation wept along with him. But he dried his tears and stormed back to beat Federer in the Olympic final on the same court just a couple of months later. Remarkably, he then went on to finally end the 77-year wait for a British man to win the Wimbledon singles title the following summer. I suspect I wasn’t alone in having something in my eye that day too.

Part of the appeal of Murray is that he has had to work so hard and come through huge adversity throughout his career to reach the heights he did in November 2016, when he defeated Djokovic to become the number one tennis player in the world.

Throughout his career, he has been up against arguably the three greatest players that the men’s game has ever seen, and yet he has clawed and scrapped his way into the mix to win three grand slam titles. Had he been born a decade earlier, he would surely have reached double figures.

And despite the early perceptions of Murray as cold and dour, he has slowly revealed to the nation that in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. And they in turn have warmed to him and taken him into their collective heart.

Tennis was a sport that outside of two weeks in June barely registered in the public interest, but Murray has transcended that indifference and turned a minority sport into a major national talking point.

So, it is painful to see Murray struggling not only physically with his tennis game as his body restricts the level of his play, but also the clear emotional struggle he is going through as he tries valiantly to return to the top level of the game.

In 2018, after going under the knife in January, Murray played in just six tournaments. Typically, he met the end of his own annus horribilus with humour, posting a photo of himself on Instagram on Hogmanay swigging from a bottle of champagne and declaring: “Celebrating the end of 2018. What a s**t year that was!”

The stark contrast of his emotional interview 24 hours later though after defeating James Duckworth in the Brisbane Open told you everything you needed to know about the fears hiding behind that humour, and how fragile the prospect of the 31-year-old from Dunblane ever reaching his magnificent peak again really is.

“I want to enjoy as much as I can and enjoy playing tennis as much as I can as I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last,” he said, fighting back the tears once more. Let’s hope it’s a little longer yet, and we get to witness another outbreak of on-court emotion from him for all the right reasons soon.

When he is gone, when will we see his likes again?