Andy Murray completed a remarkable return from what had appeared a career-ending injury with victory over Stan Wawrinka to claim the European Open title on Sunday night. But where exactly does the astonishing triumph leave him now?
The big plusses
Murray says he doesn’t feel quite as mobile as he was before his hip trouble. But then, he used to be one of the quickest on the tour. Now, even though he is running at a few per cent below his best, he is still able to shrink the court with his movement and extend rallies one or two shots beyond his opponents’ expectations. In Antwerp, it was fascinating to see how they tried to catch him out with drop-shots, only for him to repeatedly charge forward and tap the ball away for a winner.
This is always Murray’s most natural shot and the one that slots back into place quickest after downtime. From his second match of the week, he was drilling his cross-court backhand low, flat and hard into his opponent’s own backhand corner. And as he was up against a man with a single-handed backhand that day (Pablo Cuevas), as well as another the following day (Marius Copil), this created a power imbalance. A single hander can live with Murray, but only if he has outstanding feel and control.
The fact that Murray made his return to competitive tennis on the doubles court has sharpened this aspect of his game. He has always had beautiful hands at the net, but he used to be prone to the odd howler as well. Now those aberrations are becoming rarer – although everyone misses the occasional sitter of a volley – and his decision-making is also sharper. In Antwerp we often saw him hit his first volley back to the same corner where his approach shot had landed. This might sound like giving the ball straight back to your opponent, but when they are trying to recover back to the centre of the court, the tactic has a wrong-footing effect.
Murray arrived in Antwerp complaining that he had lacked killer instinct during his trip to Asia, too often allowing leads to turn into dogfights. He did commit this sin against Copil in the quarter-final, mislaying his first serve at 5-3 in the second set and being dragged into a decider. But what was more telling was his resilience under pressure against both Ugo Humbert (semi-final) and Wawrinka (final). Despite being bullied around the court in both matches, he kept putting balls back into play and eventually both these big-hitters blinked.
Room for improvement
This was merely a function of a sore right elbow, which prevented him from practising his serve in the days before the tournament. Murray’s first-serve percentage was low for most of the week, barely tipping over 50 at times. When it went in, though, the shot was both powerful and effective. One delivery was clocked at 133mph, and several others weren’t far behind.
Instinctively, Murray has always been reluctant to go after his forehand. He has to feel comfortable in himself to swing big; to have some form behind him. Or to have Ivan Lendl in his ear. That was the key difference in in his two spells with Lendl: he accepted that he had to be more aggressive off that wing, and the major titles flowed as a result. In Antwerp last week, the combination of a beefy backhand and a slightly cagey forehand, which he used to set up points rather than finish them, made him resemble the more conservative player who kept knocking on the grand-slam door before 2012. Or perhaps the post-back surgery model of 2014. Still, that is hardly a low base. If he keeps building confidence, the winners will start to flow from the forehand side.
It should be stressed that we are assessing Murray as a contender here, not as someone who underwent major surgery less than nine months ago. On that basis, he is already achieving miracles, and deserves every superlative in the book.
With regard to whether he can compete for grand slams in the future, the answer is: “perhaps”. He will need to upgrade the two most important shots in the game – his serve and his forehand – from where they were in Antwerp. The first is simple, and will come with a little rest for that sore right elbow. The second is likely to build with more time on court.
One unknown is how his game will respond to a lighter training schedule. During future slams, he has said that he plans to keep practices short on the days between matches, to ease the load on his body. He also believes that he is unlikely to ever recover 100 per cent of his pre-operation footspeed.
But with his enormous ingenuity, his tactical nous and an increased willingness to come forward to the net, Murray can probably offset any slight reduction in mobility. On the basis of his recent play, a run to the second week of January’s Australian Open seems an achievable target.