Murray set for remarkable return at AO 2020

  • Simon Cambers

There was a moment at the Australian Open, 12 months ago, when Andy Murray realised he was loved.

As he stood on the baseline preparing to serve at 5-1 down in the final set of his first-round match against Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, the crowd inside the Melbourne Arena began to clap.

For well over a minute, they continued clapping and cheering and Murray stood with his racket aloft. At 32, his damaged right hip had left him in agony and as he acknowledged the support of the fans who appreciated what he was going through, his outstanding career seemed done.

But this is Andy Murray, surely the best British male player in history and a man whose work ethic helped him to get to the top.

As he watched a video tribute from his fellow players play out on the big screen, he looked decidedly uncomfortable.

Three days before, he had explained to the media that the pain had become too much, that he could push on until Wimbledon and quit; or perhaps, he could have a serious hip operation, which had no guarantee he would be able to play again but which would at least get rid of the pain and improve his quality of life.

I’m always wanting to do better and I’m always being probably way too hard on myself
Andy Murray

And yet, when Murray told the crowd, “Maybe I’ll see you again,” it was apparent that mentally, he still had unfinished business.

Two weeks later, he had hip resurfacing surgery. It was an operation which left him with a metal hip. At that stage, the idea he would be back on court again, competitively, seemed highly unlikely.

But, barring any last-minute issues with his health, Murray will be back on court in Melbourne again this month, back in the Australian Open field and chasing glory once again. 

Five times the runner-up in Melbourne, if the expectations are a little lower than before, he has already improved enormously since he began his comeback in June. 

In October, he won his first title since surgery when he triumphed in Antwerp. That was his 46th title and, as he reflected recently, the most difficult of all.

“Winning in Antwerp was for me the hardest tournament I’ve ever had to win, in terms of everything that went into that,” he said. “It was really difficult to get back to that point again.” 

Before Murray, doubles player Bob Bryan was the only tennis player to have had the same resurfacing operation and then returned to the circuit. But that was in doubles and singles is a different beast. 

Murray chose doubles to begin his comeback in June and it started in storybook fashion when he joined forces with an inspired Feliciano Lopez to win the Aegon Championships at London’s Queen’s Club. 

Just seeing Murray back on court was a joy and it seems he has a new perspective, the three-time grand slam champion lighter in spirit as he tries to enjoy tennis, rather than simply chasing titles.

His progression over the summer was steady, his decision not to play singles at Wimbledon a wise one as he learned to trust his new hip.

When he did return, in the United States in July, he struggled initially but with every week, his fitness and movement improved and he turned the corner in a three-week stint in China, when he picked up some big wins, including one over the Italian, Matteo Berrettini, who ended the year inside the world’s top 10.

And in Antwerp, where he beat Stan Wawrinka for the title, he showed that, at least in the best-of-three-set format, he can be a contender again.

Having ended the year just outside the world’s top 100, Murray will surely continue to rise as his fitness, strength and stamina improve.

The question now, for Murray, is whether he will be happy if he’s not truly in contention to win the biggest titles, whether simply being back on the court again, when he thought he was finished, will continue to be enough.

“I’m already going through that process just now and it’s a difficult one for me because I’m always wanting to do better and I’m always being probably way too hard on myself, in terms of my performances, how I’m playing and things like that,” he said. 

“You’re always challenged to keep doing better. Look, I like that about sport but it is difficult to stay in that mindset.

“I think once I completely forget about my hip and realise that it’s functioning properly and it’s not an issue anymore, then maybe I change to let’s just get back to competing and see what we can do, but right now I’m trying to have a slightly different mindset. But it’s hard.”

A few weeks after his operation, Murray realised that if he could never play tennis competitively again, he would be OK, that tennis, for now at least, is not the be all and end all. Being back is a massive achievement in itself.