Murphy Jensen calls it his jumping-off point. “I had maybe a day to live,” he says. “If that.”
Sequestered in a hotel on L.A.’s Sunset Strip weeks after a first-round loss at the 1999 US Open, Jensen was drinking and using drugs to excess.
It was painfully clear that he needed help. Instead of calling the cops, the hotel manager called an interventionist, and so began the first step in Jensen’s long, winding journey to sobriety.
Jensen’s story begins a long way from the lights of Hollywood. Raised in rural Michigan, he first laid eyes on a tennis net as it was being used to help corral salmon in the Pere Marquette River.
Soon he learned the game itself. Jensen’s father, Howard, a former NFL player, teacher and high-school tennis coach, taught him and his older brother, Luke, using instruction material from TENNIS Magazine. The siblings naturally took to the sport and were sweeping local titles before they turned 10.
As a teenager, Murphy loved spending time on court with his brother just as much as he loved competing. A year after becoming the top American junior in singles and doubles, Luke headed to USC. Two years later, Murphy followed. It was there that Murphy joined a fraternity and first tasted the party lifestyle.
After college, Murphy hit the ATP tour to pursue a career alongside his brother. For the typical tennis fan, his style—complete with a backwards hat, Oakleys and baggy, mismatched clothes—was startling. Luke was equally eye-catching with his shoulder-length hair and signature bandana. Grunge Tennis, the headlines declared.
“My dad said that sports were ente-rtainment,” Murphy says. “He never cared about the score. He cared about the fight. Are you willing to outfight this guy? We were willing to do that.”
When the Jensens entered Roland Garros in 1993, it was the ultimate chance to put their performance art on display. The unseeded duo proceeded to shock the tennis world by brazenly barreling through the draw and winning the title. Even at 24 years old, Murphy knew his life had changed forever.
“I vividly remember shaking after winning the French,” Murphy says. “I had this sense of anxiety that this is going to get big, and wondering if I would measure up.”
When he picked up his prize money check for around $150,000, it was more money than he had ever seen. Everyone wanted a piece of the guitar-playing, Harley-riding, tennis rebels. Endorsement offers rolled in. Interviews with Rolling Stone and People magazine. Countless promotional appearances. Invitations to the Playboy Mansion.
With money came independence. Instead of sharing hotel rooms with his brother and traveling together to cut costs, Murphy was on his own as Luke began to settle down. Without Luke by his side, Murphy struggled to function in a new world of excess.
“Once I started drinking, I didn’t have the ability to stop,” Murphy says. “I lost control. I wasn’t able to predict the outcome of going to a players’ party or anything else. I didn’t know what was wrong, why I had a different reaction to the responsibilities of being one of the marquee names in the game.”
Six years after winning Roland Garros, Murphy found himself in that Hollywood hotel room. His meeting with the interventionist led to nearly four years of sobriety before a relapse. He wouldn’t find solid footing again until 2006, the same year he retired from pro tennis.
It was also the year he was forced to find his identity outside the game that made him famous; outside of his doubles partnership with Luke.
“I discovered that I had a lot more to offer than being a Jensen brother,” Murphy says. “Recovery has given me a life beyond my wildest dreams.”
With a new outlook, Murphy has stayed involved in tennis, particularly as a coach for the wildly successful Washington Kastles of World TeamTennis.
But his biggest success has come off the court. In 2016, Murphy co-founded WEConnect, a startup healthcare technology company which utilizes an app to support those in recovery from alcohol and/or drug addiction. It launched to rave reviews, and gave Murphy a platform to speak about his passion project to an audience in Silicon Valley.
“When I walked up on that stage, it was the first time I was not the rock-and-roll half of a doubles duo, the old Murphy Jensen,” he says.
“I was just Murphy.”
For generations, and for generations to come, tennis has positively impacted the young and old, on and off the court, in countless ways. In this year’s Heroes special, we’ve selected 30 such stories, including a 10-year-old amputee’s life-changing moment with Roger Federer, the rebuilding of a college program after Hurricane Katrina, a former prodigy’s important message as an adult, and a 78-year-old coach’s enduring influence on the pros. Taken together, these 30 stories illustrate how people grow up, grow as individuals and grow old with tennis—the sport of a lifetime. Click here for more Heroes stories.