The abiding memory of Andy Murray’s departure from the tour at the Australian Open five months ago is of a beaten, despondent man brought low by years of nagging pain.
In 2013, it had been his back: Surgery was followed by a long lay-off.
At the start of 2018, it was his hip and more surgery. He would play just six events, a dozen matches, before calling it a day in September.
But more rest and rehab was not enough. Clearly still in pain as he warmed up for the first Major of the 2019, he broke down in front of the world’s media. This may be, he said, the end of the road. And he wept.
Sure enough, drawn against the super-fit and durable Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round, Murray put up one of his greatest battles, a four-hour, five-set thriller that had Melbourne on its feet for an emotional roller-coaster. It ended in the Spaniard’s favour after Murray had fought back from two sets down to edge two tie-breakers.
The career of the most successful British tennis player would end with a bang not a whimper—if it was the end.
Immediately after the match, he laid out his choices with stark perspective.
“I have basically two options. One is to take the next four and a half months off and then build up and play Wimbledon. Which, although tonight was not comfortable, and I can’t walk properly at all just now, I could play another match. But if I want to try and play again, improve my quality of life, even if I take four months off, [and] I still can’t walk, I’m still in pain doing basic day-to-day things….” He trailed off.
“But having an operation like that, there is no guarantee that I’d be able to play again, it’s a really big operation… That’s the decision I have to make, that possibility of not having one more match by having the operation.”
In the event, he went for broke, had hip resurfacing surgery, and began the long haul towards a pain-free life. Would that life also include competitive tennis?
Well five months on, he has the answer, even if, for the moment, it is a half-way house. He will play his first competitive match at Queen’s, where he is the record five-time champion, in the doubles draw. Singles again? Well that depends.
“My goal is still to get back to playing singles, that’s what I would like to do ultimately. About six to eight weeks ago, I was chatting to my team about the best way to get back on the court again, singles wise, and we thought that doubles would be a good way to test things out—a nice progression really from the rehab I’ve been doing, seeing how I feel on a match-court playing doubles. That’ll give me information about where I’m at.”
And what about his chances of winning the title? After all, he has chosen to play with veteran Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, a proven doubles player with a Major to his name, as well as a former singles champion on the Queen’s grass.
“Yeah, I think it’s possible, but it doesn’t matter either way. I would like to, but I don’t mind if I don’t. I would say it would be unlikely, because I’ve not played many matches. And doubles on grass… points are over pretty quickly, you need to be quite sharp, it’ll depend how quickly I can get my reflexes and things like that back.”
For while the competitive juices are part of Murray’s DNA, he now has a sense of perspective that casts a different light on his expectations.
“Now it’s just nice. I like playing tennis. I’m sure some of you guys like playing tennis and enjoy getting out on the court and hitting tennis balls. I’m exactly the same. I’m a fan of the sport, I’ve played it since I was a kid and I want to keep playing if I can because I enjoy it.
“Yeah, it would be nice to be winning Wimbledon and Major tournaments, but hardly anyone gets the opportunity to do that and there are still loads of players that love and enjoy the sport without being able to win the biggest competitions.
“I would hope that I’d be able to deal with that absolutely fine as well, and just enjoy practising and training for doubles, getting ready for this event. Although it’s different to what I am used to, I’m fine with that, it’s not a big deal.
And the absence of pain, absence of stress, is writ large on his face. Murray looks younger, more relaxed, and his body-language is more up-beat. Yes, he admits, he is in different place, pain-free for the first time in years, and without the burden of expectations not just of tennis fans but of himself.
“I feel lucky, I feel pretty relaxed, I didn’t expect to be in this position, didn’t know how I was going to feel if I had the operation. But it’s been brilliant, completely life changing from where I was. I’m looking forward to getting back out there, but I also don’t know what to expect and I’m not having expectations on myself because just being out on a tennis court again and being comfortable and pain free is enough.
“I’ll enjoy competing, have enjoyed practising and hitting tennis balls and doing all the things I couldn’t do a few months ago.”
And that included ‘down-time’ to simply do what he had been unable to do for years:
“In the earliest stages, I was doing lots and lots of rehab and stuff. From around eight weeks, the pain in my hip was pretty much gone, and then I started doing loads of things that I hadn’t been doing and enjoying, whether that be with my family and friends, going out for dinners…
“Before, sitting in one position just wasn’t nice, it was sore. Anyone with chronic hip pain would know the feeling is not great. Whether it’s dinners, playing golf (I played a club championships with my brother yesterday, which went horribly!), watching Arsenal losing…”
He laughed. And as he reflected on that long journey from Australia to London, it was easy to see why.
“There were a number of times over the last 18 months where I did want to stop. I didn’t want to play anymore. I was getting no enjoyment out of tennis at all, whether that be training, practice, winning matches, I wasn’t really bothered because it wasn’t fun.
“I think when you spend time away, and there’s a chance you might not get back to playing again, there’s lots of things you think about, stuff you might have done differently during your career, look back and regret certain things, and wish you had done stuff differently.
“Now that I get the chance to play again, you remember the things that are actually important, the reasons for why you actually start doing something, why you play a certain sport, do a certain job. Generally, it’s because it’s something that you care about and that you actually enjoy doing and it’s not just to win tennis matches.
“I hit some balls with a few kids a few weeks ago—I was practising on the court next to them and seeing young kids running around and hitting tennis balls, just loving practising and playing. It makes you remember that’s how you started and the reason for why you do it is because it is fun and you love it and it becomes a passion.
“And yeah, everybody wants to do well in their job but ultimately all you can do is give your best, and my best now might not be what it was when I was 25 in terms of what that looks like on a tennis court. Who knows, maybe it will be in a few months.”
Murray and Lopez begin their Fever-tree Championships campaign on Wednesday against top seeds Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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