There were times, both before and after that second operation to his hip, that Murray doubted whether he would ever be able to return to a sport that has brought him such world-wide respect and popularity.
He is, after all, winner of three Majors from 11 finals, two Olympic gold medals, and the Davis Cup, and reached the No1 ranking during what is arguably the greatest era in men’s tennis. All three fellow No1s, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, top the all-time rankings for Major title victories.
But from the depths of despair and pain following his four-hour, five-set loss in the first round of the Australian Open, he first made a return to doubles, winning his first event at Queen’s with Feliciano Lopez. He then attempted some singles competition during the US Open swing—sensibly bypassing the best-of-five-set format in New York—and picked up his first match-win at the Challenger event in Mallorca.
It was enough to announce a full Asian schedule: He plans to play the China Open next week, followed by the Shanghai Rolex Masters, where he is a three-time champion, before joining the indoor European swing with Antwerp Open in mid October.
And he launched that Asian assault with a hard-fought win over Tennys Sandgren in Zhuhai, 6-3, 6-7(6), 6-1.
Murray, who is ranked 413 but able to play with a protected ranking, lost to Sandgren at Winston-Salem in August in the first round. This time, he missed the opportunity of a match point in the second-set tie-break, but once he sealed a 19-minute game in the decider to lead 4-0, the win became a formality after a gruelling 2hrs 41mins.
The Briton will next play the talented 20-year-old Australian Alex de Minaur, who is currently ranked 31 and seeded No7 in a high-quality field topped by world No6 Stefanos Tsitsipas and, in Murray’s half, No10 Roberto Bautista Agut. The bottom half also contains Borna Coric, so the tests to that hip are coming fast and strong.
However Murray was very positive about what lay ahead after this first match.
“I think that in some ways, it’s one of the best wins I’ve had, not in terms of just getting through that today, but everything that’s gone into getting back to this point.
“You don’t necessarily appreciate what it’s like to be healthy and stuff at the beginning of your career, it’s something that you take for granted and it’s quite easy. Whereas, these last few years haven’t been, and obviously after the operation in January, it’s been difficult—and it was undecided at times whether I wanted to keep going or not. And yeah, it’s been tough.”
He went on to explain that there was room for improvement, but was pragmatic about his progress:
“Obviously there’s things that I feel I can do better, but it was definitely progress… I think I did a little bit better tonight than I did when we played a few weeks ago and that’s a good thing. That’s what I need to keep doing the next few months and then eventually I’ll see the progress stop and I’ll find out what my limit is.
“But it’s good to see that I’m still progressing and making improvements.”
He went on:
“My goal is to try and get two to three matches a week in all of the tournaments while I’m [in China]. So if I got nine matches in the three weeks, I would think that was a really, really good trip. Which might seem like low expectation, but if I got somewhere between six and nine matches I would be happy with that, because of where I’m at just now, and I’m respecting the recovery process.”
Finally, he reflected on how he felt now compared with nine months ago:
“If I played this match in January, there’s no chance… I couldn’t compete the following day or even two days later, I would be in a lot of pain and discomfort.
“Now I’m tired and fatigued, and muscles and stuff are tired from playing the match, but in terms of how my hip feels, that feels really good. I’m satisfied with that because, in January, I couldn’t remember what it was like to play tennis and not have the pain in my hip. So now it’s just pretty cool that I’m able to play without any pain there.”
Murray plays de Minaur on Thursday night.
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