Andy Murray talked a big game before the Australian Open, insisting he was ready to take on a top player in the opening stages of a grand slam, and then he lived up to his word. In a staggering five-set win over Matteo Berrettini and at the age of 35, Murray produced his best performance and physical display at this level in half a decade. The astonishing drama of his battle with Berrettini may have been staged over almost five hours, but this was a victory of perseverance built over a much longer time, created away from the spotlight where for so long there had only been frustration at the parts of his game that were not clicking together.
When Murray arrived at the Australian Open, more than 2,000 days had passed since his last win over a top-20 opponent at a grand slam, in what was a 2017 French Open quarter-final victory against Kei Nishikori. There had been several admirable efforts in the years since his hip resurfacing surgery, all typified by heart and character but accompanied by grimaces and hobbles, shuffled movement between points and pained expressions. It was, at times, uncomfortable to watch, and as the results struggled to follow it was fair to wonder if it was all worth it.
“I’ve certainly questioned myself at times,” Murray admitted, but from somewhere he found the motivation to go again after a 2022 season that continued to be disrupted by injury niggles and a lack of consistency. Murray played his final match of the season in October, losing to a 38-year-old Gilles Simon who was on the verge of retirement. He was unhappy with his physical condition and his game was missing the spark required to compensate for it. “A lot of people questioned me and my ability,” Murray said. “Whether I could still perform at the biggest events and the biggest matches.”
It was at his home in Florida and alongside coach Ivan Lendl, whose return to Murray’s side has lifted this difficult second part of his career, where the former world No 1 found the evidence to go along with long-held belief that he could still compete with the best over five sets. Murray committed himself to a “basic life” with “very, very little distractions” and total focus on his tennis. Lendl, who rejoined Murray’s team last season, oversaw the preparations. “He’s certainly not going to let me get away with, well, not working hard,” Murray said. “He’s always going to push me as hard as he can to try and get the best out of me.”
As Murray headed to Australia, he was confident the pieces were beginning to come together. Drawing Berrettini, a semi-finalist in last season’s Australian Open, in the first round could have been seen as a blow but it also offered a big stage and an immediate chance to put his work to the test. From the opening games of his match against the Italian, it was clear to see why Murray had belief.
His movement around the court was assured, setting up opportunities to find his angles and passing shots. When Murray reached a shot he remained composed, and his game was boosted by a serve that worked effectively and disrupted Berrettini’s forehand side. It allowed everything else to come together.
“When I move well, I tend to play well,” Murray had said before Australia, and across the opening two sets against Berrettini he was close to faultless. Murray had two break points at the start of the third but, by then, Berrettini was beginning to find his often indomitable serve. The momentum did turn from there, but Murray’s conditioning and game was backed up by a spirit that is famously hard to break.
Mentality can only get you so far, though, as Murray highlighted defeats to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the US Open and John Isner at Wimbledon as examples of matches over the past two years that had slipped from his grasp. “It could have got away from me,” said Murray of Berrettini’s comeback, who admitted he was unaware it had been 18 years since the only other match he had lost from two sets up. “I was impressed with myself,” he smiled, sheepishly, “I’m hard on myself usually.”
Above all, there was pride for the work he had put in when previously there had been little or no reward. Murray does not need to be doing this: his place in history and standing among his nation’s sporting greats is already secure, and won’t be altered by the majority of his year’s work. Murray remains committed to the grind of the tour; appearances from Surbiton to Newport, Rhode Island, are enough evidence of that. “It paid off tonight,” Murray said.
There was a little luck, too, as Berrettini put a simple backhand into the net when on match point late in the fifth. Murray at that moment was helpless but he would perhaps argue that he had earned his fortune. “It’s impressive what he could do after so many surgeries, after all the kilometers that he ran in his career. It’s impressive," Berrettini said. “It just shows how much he loves the game, how much he loves these kind of matches.”
Indeed, it is in the atmospheres that only stadiums such as Rod Laver and Centre Court can produce that motivate Murray to deliver his best performances. In the moment, he thrives off the emotions but in recent years they have also often left him drained. It is why a possible second-round match against the Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis, one of the home favourites, could work in his favour. It’s another occasion that would create an electric night match on Rod Laver, if Murray’s body holds.
There is confidence it will, though, even after four hours and 45 minutes against Berrettini. Murray believes and, thanks to the work he has already put in, it has given him an opportunity that no one outside his team saw coming.