January 2019 – “How are you feeling?”
After 20 months of thinly veiled agony, amplified by the dissonant screeching of his patella, vertebrae, hip and cartilage, Andy Murray offered one last mumbled passing shot in defence.
“Yeah… not great.”
And with a sigh that silenced the Australian Open press conference room in morbid anticipation, the Scot’s stubborn resilience peeled away like age-old layers of paint and the tears glassed across his eyes. “Obviously, I’ve been struggling for a long time,” he said. “The pain is not allowing me to enjoy competing, training or any of the stuff I love about tennis. I spoke to my team, and I told them, ‘I cannot keep doing this.'”
And yet it was typical of Murray, even at his lowest ebb after the montage of eulogies from his fellow players, that just hours after saying a grand goodbye, a fire was already refusing to burn out. Almost immediately he announced his intention to make a comeback, a publicly binding contract to prevent those near and far from questioning his decision. A fortnight later, he underwent a specialist hip resurfacing operation that most presumed would draw the curtain on his career, but was actually a 31-year-old’s final Hail Mary.
And so the gruelling blueprint began. The 264 days that followed – from wheelchair to crutch, morphine to antibiotic, Oxshott village sports club to Sunday’s European final – has often felt like a bloodless dash from the gates of retirement. In his first singles match since surgery, Murray was kicked back and forth by Richard Gasquet – an opponent he had defeated on each of their last six meetings – like a limp husk, instinctively cautious and scared to attempt his old tricks of invention. “You could see that it was not the Murray of before,” the Frenchman said. The following week, Murray capsized 6-1 in the deciding set against Tennys Sandgren.
It wasn’t that Murray’s ability or desire had deteriorated, but that his body simply couldn’t obey. The cobalt in his mind unable to be matched by the mushroom cap that hoods the tip of his thigh bone. Afterwards, he went off-script and entered a second-tier Challenger Tour event in Mallorca. But in the round-of-16, he lost to little-known No 240 Matteo Viola, and this last lap of honour took on more of a lingering half-life.
Nostalgia makes the fading margins glare: the way Murray couldn’t quite spring into his first-serve, the labour to his pivots, the wince as he shunted the full force of his bodyweight onto his knee. It was to watch the uncomfortable catch-22 of a man eking at every last sinew, running away from the abyss by returning to the same road that led him there. It’s still hard to believe that loss was less than two months ago.
Murray’s two-and-a-half-hour victory over Stan Wawrinka in the European Open final was only his 14th singles match of the year, and yet it was the 132nd game he’d played over four days. In an exacting streak of tournaments that stretched two continents – from Beijing and Shanghai to an understated suburb of Antwerp – he began to resurrect a lost fortress of defence, terrorise the baseline like days of old and protract rallies which physics had repeatedly attempted to end. Finally, when break or solve appeared the only two conclusions, the jigsaw came together.
Of course, the lesser-known Lotto Arena is famed for its music events rather than a field of elite tennis players, and Murray’s opponent in the final had also recently returned from two career-threatening surgeries. But to focus on that would be to ignore the defining quality of this victory. While the accuracy continues to fine-tune and the power steadily recoups, Murray’s physique finally kept pace with his willpower over a sustained period. And, in doing so, he at last started to alleviate the scar tissue and doubt left by months of rehabilitation. As he fought back from a set and a break down, winning seven straight points, feeding off every drop of momentum, forever griping at the loyal circle in his box, it was as close to the old Murray as anything we’ve seen.
He may never have the magnetism of a Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, but it’s that irrepressible resistance, the ambition that pushed him so hard his body broke down in their shadows, that paints a type of irresistible charm.
Murray was never perfect; he was never supposed to win a Grand Slam, become world No 1 or have the fundamental talent to match the three greatest players to lift a racket. He wasn’t supposed to return from one hip surgery, let alone two; or be able to clinch a title two-and-a-half years after his last. But he’s spent a career trying and toiling like few of us ever have, and he’s cried, bled and failed in the spotlight like we never will. And, so even when he had no right or need to win again, the fight remained to force us to believe once more.
Who knows how long it can last; if this was a rise from the ashes or a last burning twilight. But as Wawrinka’s looping forehand drifted beyond the baseline, there were no eccentric celebrations. Murray simply walked back to his chair, wrapped in shock, draped a towel over his head and hid the rivers of emotion. Just like each time before, he had absolutely nothing left to give. And no matter what version of Murray we’re into now, no matter what height the ceilings are to his future success, that much has never changed.