Back in January, the entire tennis world was busy writing eulogies for Andy Murray. The Scot had revealed in an emotional press conference before the tournament that the pain in his hip had made it nearly impossible to continue playing, and everyone took that as a cue that he was bidding farewell to the sport.
Except that Murray never explicitly said, in so many words, that he was waving goodbye. Even after he lost his first round match at the Australian Open and the presenter insisted on sending him off with a tear-inducing tribute, Murray himself looked like he wanted to sneak away without making a big deal out of his departure.
“If this was my last match, it was an amazing way to end,” Murray said on the court. In retrospect, the signs should always have been clear to us; the fact that Murray stressed on the ‘if’ should have told us there was a good chance it was not going to be his last match.
Five months and a hip resurfacing surgery later Murray was back on the court, making all those January eulogies look a tad silly. He started with doubles, partnering with Feliciano Lopez to win the very first tournament of his comeback at Queen’s, and a month later he was in familiar territory again: playing the in a Masters 1000 tournament, at Cincinnati.
It was all happening at breakneck speed. How was the man competing in Masters events so quickly after having had a metal cap inserted into his hip? It almost seemed like a miracle.
But then we were given a glimpse of what Murray’s post-surgery tennis looked like, and it didn’t seem quite so miraculous anymore. While he lost to Richard Gasquet in that Cincinnati match by the respectable score of 6-4, 6-4, he looked like a far cry from his former Slam-winning self.
The man that rose to the World No. 1 ranking in 2016 through his demonic movement and error-free shot-making was nowhere to be seen.
Instead, we saw a man who breathed heavily after every rally longer than five shots, and who struggled to keep his forehand in the court at the slightest hint of pressure.
This was, of course, to be expected. A hip resurfacing surgery is not your everyday nuts-and-bolts procedure; when you have a piece of metal inserted into your body, your recovery time is automatically lengthened. Bob Bryan is the only tennis player who has returned to action from such a surgery, and even an athletic freak like him won his first title only after a gap of nine months. And that was in doubles.
Bryan would be the first to tell you that making a comeback in singles is considerably tougher than doing so in doubles. But Murray’s laboured movement against Gasquet made us wonder whether he’d be able to make a full comeback at all, let alone take a long time to do it.
A week after Cincinnati Murray played in Winston-Salem, where he lost in the first round to Tennys Sandgren. He then decided to skip the US Open (even though he was certain to get direct entry, either through his protected ranking or via a wildcard), travelling instead to Mallorca for a Challenger event.
A loss to 240th-ranked Matteo Viola in the third round there sounded bad on paper, but the tournament overall may have been just the kind of practice Murray needed. The Scot got to play three matches in Mallorca as he brushed aside his first two opponents with ease, and the extended time on the court probably did a world of good to his court sense and general ‘feel’ for the ball.
That cliché about taking a step back to move forward can sometimes be true, and we know now that it definitely holds good when it comes to returning from hip resurfacing surgeries. Murray’s comeback sounded too quick to be true at Cincinnati, and it actually was. The man was giving himself too much to do in too tough an environment, without enough preparation. But by going the Challenger route he could ease himself back into the fray, gradually regaining his muscle memory and competitive instincts.
The result of that strategic detour has been evident in the Asian fall swing, as Murray has put together two good runs in consecutive weeks. In Zhuhai he defeated Tennys Sandgren in the first round and pushed eventual champion Alex de Minaur to his limit in the second. This week in Beijing he went one step further; playing a lot more like the champion of old, he defeated US Open semifinalist Matteo Berrettini in the first round and fellow Brit Cameron Norrie in the second before falling to World No. 5 Dominic Thiem in the quarters.
The match against Thiem, even though it resulted in a loss, was perhaps the most encouraging of all. Murray stood toe-to-toe with his hard-hitting opponent from start to finish, and never looked out of gas at any point. More importantly, his defense was close to what it used to be. He regularly made Thiem hit an extra shot, and if the Austrian had been having an off-day, he may well have missed enough to give Murray the win.
But Thiem wasn’t having an off-day (he finished with 35 winners to just 16 unforced errors), so there was always going to be only one result. Still, the 6-2, 7-6 scoreline probably doesn’t do justice to how competitive the match was. It was a two-setter that took nearly two hours, and when the second set tiebreaker started there was actually no telling who had the edge.
If Murray can get into a situation against the World No. 5 where it is tough to predict the winner of a set, he is certainly on the right path in his comeback.
“I’m playing well enough to be competitive at this level against all of the players,” Murray said after the match. “Maybe not quite consistent enough just now to beat the top players. But I think against guys that are No. 10 or No. 20 in the world, I can compete well against them just now.”
Murray was pretty clean himself in the stats department against Thiem, hitting 29 winners against 22 errors. 29 winners in two sets is a high number for a player like Murray; he revealed later that after getting broken in the very first game of the match, he deliberately started trying to shorten the points. The Scot had been feeling a bit of fatigue early on and so, in a bid to conserve energy, decided to abandon his usual game in favor of a more high-risk approach.
That didn’t work against Thiem, but the tools Murray used to implement the strategy looked impressive. He hit his forehand a little flatter than usual – his inside-in forehand in particular had quite a bit of venom – which meant more errors but also more winners. He combined that with a liberal amount of drop shots and volleys – he has lost none of his underrated touch – to frequently take Thiem out of his comfort zone. Murray’s second serve has also seemingly acquired a little more depth and pace since his return, which can only help his aggressive plays going forward.
That said, it’s not all hunky-dory for Murray. His movement is still a little up-and-down; while he looked agile enough against Thiem, he did his fair share of panting and limping against both Berrettini and Norrie. His backhand pass also looks a bit uncomfortable now; the limitations on his body rotation due to the hip surgery seem to be forcing him to go for broke on that shot, predictably making him miss quite often.
Is it just a matter of time for the pieces to fall in place though? Murray himself thinks so.
“I think I need a few more weeks of playing matches like this,” he said in his post-match presser. “Two, three or four matches in a week, trying to play consistently well in all of those matches, to say I’m playing top-20 tennis or something like that. But I’m getting there.
“This week is better than last week. I hope next week is better than this week. That’s how I have to try to keep going to see where my limit is. I don’t think I’m at that limit now. I think I can keep improving.”
Knowing Murray and the years of hard work he has put into his career, it would be wise not to doubt him when he says he can improve further. Murray has the mind and heart of a champion, and no amount of metal in his hip is going to change that.
The question now is only whether his body can keep pace with his mind. We know Murray has the will to get back to where he was. But does he have the strength in his body to withstand five-setters at Grand Slams? The flexibility in his legs to retrieve the bullets that players have spent years trying to hit past him? The power in his arms to be the author of his own destiny?
It will be fascinating to find out. And we’ll get another look at his progress at the upcoming Shanghai Masters, where Murray is slated to take a fresh shot at competing with the elite. It shouldn’t surprise us if, as he himself put it, ‘next week is better than this week’.
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Updated Date: Oct 05, 2019 09:41:56 IST