It was gone 3am, it had taken over three hours and three painful sets, and after Murray had beaten Marius Copil, winning three fewer points in the 231 played to seal a quarter-final place, the Briton sat in courtside and sobbed.
The win had come on the back of two more arduous three-setters, but while exhaustion had clearly played a major part in this very public, but deeply personal moment, it was about much more.
One year before, on the last day of July 2017, Murray was still ranked as world No1 after a stunning 2016 season that earned him the Wimbledon title, a second Olympic gold, the ATP Finals and three Masters titles, and he reached the final of the French and Australian Opens and two more Masters, as well. Not only did he nab the No1 spot for the first time, but he began 2017 as Sir Andy Murray.
But after six months of growing hip pain, he was then forced to call a halt after Wimbledon, conceding that hard-won top ranking, and he resorted to hip surgery at the start of 2018.
By the time Murray played that Washington match against Copil seven months later, he had won just one match in the space of a year, and was ranked 832.
He admitted after that Washington win:
“The body doesn’t feel great right now; I’ve had a few long matches… it’s a very difficult position to be coming back from a long injury to be finishing matches at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Sure enough, he withdrew from the quarter-final, and won only three more matches during the remainder of the year.
Thus the months turned to years, and the toll was written all over his face as he prepared to return again at the Australian Open, but even before his first match, the tears flowed once more as he spoke of living with daily pain, of his struggles with menial tasks like putting on shoes, and of the possibility that he would have to retire from the sport. Yes, he may consider further hip surgery, but with the purpose of enjoying a better, pain-free, quality of life.
This most competitive of athletes put on another remarkable show of resilience and determination in the first round in Melbourne against Roberto Bautista Agut, this time five sets, well over four hours, and more than 300 points, but to no avail. Instead, it was back under the surgeon’s knife—and an uncertain tennis future.
Fast forward to this June, his beloved grass, and to Queen’s Club. He had been practising, and he had been making promising noises about his recovery, but even so, few expected quite the summer treat Murray would provide.
Yet even before he spoke, his face as he ambled into the press room ahead of his surprise return to competition—in doubles with Feliciano Lopez—was worth a thousand words. No longer was he grey, drawn, downcast. The years had melted away, and he smiled.
In fact, he could barely stop smiling. He talked of being able to spend time with friends and family, of sitting down for dinner without pain, of playing golf, and getting some perspective about the place of tennis in his life.
“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.”
He went on:
“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.”
And not only did he and Lopez have a ball in the doubles draw, they won the title. But what about singles tennis? Did he now see that as a viable proposition?
“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.”
His enthusiasm grew, and he hitched up with a variety of doubles partners for the rest of the grass season, including Serena Williams in the mixed draw at Wimbledon. But in his column for the BBC website, he remained keen to underplay his readiness for singles. He said:
“Now my Wimbledon is over, my focus will switch to doing a lot of physical work over the next four to six weeks to improve the strength in my hip… That strength is not going to come back in just three or four months it could take nine or 12 months.”
But he also talked of the sheer pleasure of being back in the game—emotionally as much as competitively:
“I was excited to be back playing here [at Wimbledon] again, and although I had nerves and I felt the pressure, it was not to the same degree as I usually would playing in the singles. What I particularly enjoyed was being around the locker room and having that camaraderie with the other players and the support staff.”
His next foray, he announced, would be on the hard courts, as the US Open Series gets underway across North America. And he will make that foray on the court that he left in tears 12 months ago, in Washington. This time, he will partner his brother, Jamie, and in a vividly contrasting state of mind. He even talked to reporters ahead of the prestigious 500 event of a possible venture into the singles draw in Cincinnati in a fortnight’s time—always dependent on how he feels and how Washington unfolds.
“I’m closer than I thought. Best case scenario [for singles] probably would be Cincinnati. And then if I wasn’t able to play in Cincinnati, there’s a good chance I would probably wait until after New York, because I wouldn’t want my first tournament to be playing best-of-five sets.”
He referred to the US Open, the final Major that follows hot on the heels of the Western and Southern Open Masters in Cincinnati.
He is already in the doubles draw for the imminent Montreal Masters, playing again with Lopez, and told reporters in Washington:
“In terms of how I’m moving and feeling and pulling up the next day from these practices, I’m really happy with where I’m at. I think I’m quite close. If I was to play a tournament in a few weeks’ time, I could do it. But it’s just to get to maybe where I want to get to, I’ll need to play matches and get a little bit more work done in the gym and get my cardio better.
“What I’m doing here is, for the most part, going to practise singles and play doubles to compete and then just each week I’m just going to see. If I keep progressing and I feel good in three weeks’ time, then I’ll play singles as soon as I’m ready. I’m not quite ready this week, but I hope at some stage soon I will be.”
It has been a very long and challenging road from Washington last year to Washington this year. And a look again at the Murray rankings as August rolls around again is a painful reminder of just how fickle this sport can be when long-term injury hits.
On the last day of July in 2017, he was No1; on the same day last year, No832; and today he is at 222. In that two-year span, he has won only seven singles matches from 12 played, and only five doubles matches from seven played.
And yet, it seems, you can’t keep a good man down. As he said at Queen’s after playing his very first match since that make-or-break surgery seven months ago:
“I feel optimistic about the future.”
Who would have thought it after that departure from Washington a year ago?
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge