‘Watching Andy was heartbreaking’ – Murray’s coach on injury nightmare

Tumaini Carayol
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Fred Lee/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Fred Lee/Getty Images

It was last December during Andy Murray’s annual training camp in Miami when Matt Little, his longtime strength and conditioning coach, believed it was all over. They had just finished a nightmare season in which Murray had done everything he possibly could to permanently return to the court – from attempting to correct his hip with surgery in January to copious cortisone injections throughout the year to numb the constant, searing pain – yet as he prepared for the new season his hip still screamed for mercy with every movement.

In the middle of a disastrous training session with Fernando Verdasco, Murray wondered why on earth he was still putting himself through so much pain. Little asked his employer a simple question and the final answer later that day was devastating. “I said to him: ‘Look, if you could quit today, would you?’” Little says. “He said: ‘You know what, I’d feel a lot better.’ He said to us in the locker room that day it’s all over. That for us as a team was the first time he had actually said it. Properly said it. Meant it.

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“We were in pieces, absolute bits. Myself, Jamie [Murray] and Shane [Annun], there were a lot of tears in that locker room. We didn’t leave for a while. Then we brushed ourselves down, we said: ‘Let’s go to Australia anyway, let’s give it a go.’ Then the press conference happened. So that was the main time when we thought that is it, it’s game over.”

One of the most striking aspects of Murray’s new documentary is that Little’s face appears nearly as much as Murray’s own. He is always there. Much has been made of the solitary nature of the head‑to‑head battles on the tennis court, where the players are alone and coaching is verboten on the ATP tour, but it is in the shadows and during these desperate moments where loneliness can fester. Although players always refer to the people around them as their “team”, they are employees and the mere presence of money can alter even the tightest relationships. One of the primary keys to success in tennis is associating with the right people.

Over their 12 years, it seems like Little has been the right sort of person for Murray. The warmth between them is palpable and Little, 43, clearly looks out for him. One of the more painful memories of the past couple of years were his simple observations of other people as they watched Murray. He had spent much of his career as a feared presence in the locker room, yet suddenly people would survey his limp and whisper about his condition behind his back.

“It was kind of heartbreaking being at the tournaments and watching them watch him move. Even when he was practising, you would see the other teams stop what they were doing and look over and start discussing among themselves: ‘Look at Murray, he is still in trouble, blah, blah, blah.’ And that is one of the great things about being back at tournaments now where he is able to walk with pride and walk properly and look like the athlete he always should be.”

The incessant rehabilitation means this has been an incredibly testing period for all. Murray’s metal right hip may just be the healthiest part of his body but the rest of his 32‑year‑old physique has to compensate for this new metal fitting, while the muscles sliced around his hip for surgery are still healing and strengthening.

This all means Murray has been forced to change his approach to tennis. He has long been known for his ability to push through the pain but he now has to listen to his body instead of defying it. He will no longer adhere to a rigid calendar and blindly chasing points or appearance fees would be imbecilic. Little constantly stresses the fact that nobody has ever attempted to return to tennis after such a procedure.

“There has been no blueprint for this. No one has ever done this before. There is no marker, OK, make you sure you get this done at this time. Make sure you are strong here. We have to manage that as we go. And so we have got to be very careful. We don’t know what is going to happen. We still don’t know. Even though he won Antwerp and expectations have gone up. We have no idea what is around the corner.”

There may be no reason to set expectations but Little’s response when asked whether Murray can compete for more grand slams makes it clear that recent events have allowed the team to dream.

“There is no reason why not really,” he says. “Not if he is feeling good and he is in good shape going into the tournament. And it is Andy. This is the thing. Andy just has this x-factor that normal people just don’t have. So there is no limit to what he can do – there has never been a limit to what he can do.”

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