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Whether we are talking bushfires or banishments, every Australian Open has its own unexpected drama. Back in 2019, the big story was Andy Murray and his wobbling bottom lip.
That was the year when Murray arrived in Melbourne with such an intractable hip problem that he thought he might be done for. And so did everyone else, judging by the “Happy retirement” messages that flashed up on the big screen after his five-set loss to Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round.
Now Murray finds himself back at Melbourne Park for the first time since that career cliffhanger. He is striking the ball so crisply that his decision to keep ploughing forward is increasingly looking like the right one. And he credits the warm appreciation he received on his last visit for inspiring him to continue.
“The support and everything that I got from the players and the public [in 2019], it helped me a lot,” said Murray, who became the Mark Twain of tennis when he was able to read his own obituaries. “I was struggling at that moment, mentally and physically, and I was very uncertain [what to do next].”
Murray cannot recall much about the post-match interview with Mark Petchey on what was then Melbourne Arena, nor the goodwill messages from the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. What he does remember is his state of mind before that memorable press conference, when the first half-volley of a question – “How are you feeling, Andy?” – left him so choked up with emotion that he was unable to reply.
“I was unbelievably anxious,” Murray said on Sunday. “All of those emotions had been building up for quite a long time. I’d had conversations with my team in the off-season and my family and everything. And I was like, ‘I’m going to stop after the Australian Open. I am just hating this, not enjoying it at all, my body’s killing me and I can’t compete properly either.’
“But from that night, and the match, I remember this incredible atmosphere. I’m still surprised that I was able to perform like I did with the lack of practice and preparation, and also how bad my body was feeling at the time.
“It’s a great memory. Obviously, it turned out not to be my last match, which I’m really happy about, but it certainly could have been. It would have been a good way to finish.”
There have been times over the past three years when everyone – probably even Murray himself – wondered whether he should have walked away at that moment. Progress has been slow, with a number of niggling injuries caused by his body’s new alignment, and his ranking remains stuck just outside the top 100.
Still, last week’s run to the Sydney Tennis Classic final was a revelation. Murray scored four wins, one of them against the same man – big-hitting Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili – whom he has been drawn to play in Melbourne on Tuesday. The way his body held up, after his deepest tournament run since October 2019, raised hopes of better things to come.
“It’s nice not waking up every morning and just constantly being in pain,” said Murray. “In 2019, it’s a good thing I didn’t win that match [against Bautista Agut] because I wouldn’t have been able to play the next round. Whereas now, physically, I’m in a pretty good place. Making the final last week was really good for me.”
Murray has a new coach this month in the experienced German Jan de Witt, and a new philosophy: to enjoy every match as if it could be his last. This time, though, he can see a future beyond the end of the tournament.