The man who REFUSED to walk away: 20 months ago Andy Murray broke down in tears in Melbourne and thought his career in tennis was done… but he defied expectations to make it back to the biggest stage as he prepares for US Open return
- Andy Murray is competing in a Grand Slam again after a run of 596 days
- The former world No 1 was in tears at the 2019 Australian Open due to injury
- There were fears a hip issue would end his career but he has fought his way back
- Murray plays Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka in his first-round match at the US Open
It was three days before the 2019 Australian Open when the sluice gates finally opened for Andy Murray.
After uttering just two words – ‘not great’ – in response to an innocuous question about how he was feeling, he left the Melbourne Park interview room in tears to compose himself.
Never a quitter, he was back within a couple of minutes. It all came out as he emotionally expanded on how he had breached his sky-scraping threshold of pain, and could no longer go through the agonies required to compete at the highest level. Retirement beckoned.
Andy Murray’s future in tennis appeared in doubt 20 months ago at the Australian Open
He was emotional as he saw fellow and former players paying tribute to him – despite the fact he had not actually announced that he was retiring from the sport
Murray has fought back admirably after surgery and has defied expectations to compete again
JANUARY 14, 2019 – Knocked out in the Australian Open first round by world No 22 Roberto Bautista Agut in a four-hour, five-set epic. Big screens show tribute from current and former players despite no decision on retirement
JANUARY 29, 2019 – Undergoes second hip surgery on recommendation of doubles legend Bob Bryan
MARCH 7, 2019 – Declares himself ‘pain-free’ from hip operation
JUNE 23, 2019 – Wins first tournament since surgery – doubles event at Queen’s alongside Feliciano Lopez
JULY 2019 – Enters doubles and mixed doubles at Wimbledon, losing in second round with Pierre-Hugues Hubert and third round in superstar pairing with Serena Williams
AUGUST 12, 2019 – Plays first singles match since Australian Open at Cincinnati Masters, but loses in straight sets to Richard Gasquet
OCTOBER 20, 2019 – Wins first title since comeback, beating Stan Wawrinka in the European Open final in Antwerp
AUGUST 25, 2020 – Reaches third round of Western & Southern Open by beating world No 7 Alex Zverev – his first victory over a top 10 player for more than three years
SEPTEMBER 1, 2020 – Faces Yoshihito Nishioka in US Open first round, Murray’s first Grand Slam action in 596 days
Late on Tuesday afternoon, The Man Who Refused To Walk Away will finally be back on a singles court in a Grand Slam amid what are, already, the strangest of circumstances.
His metal hip will be tested in the huge, cavernous environment of an empty, 25,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, and he will have to do plenty of running to suppress the agile Japanese baseliner, Yoshihito Nishioka, 24.
In its own way, it will be nearly as remarkable as the occasion at the same venue eight years ago, when he fought off the ferocious comeback of Novak Djokovic to become Britain’s first male Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry.
Rewind to January last year in Melbourne and it is interesting to revisit Murray’s words during that lachrymose press conference, which took those present aback with its tone of finality.
There was one last operation available that had allowed a few people in some pursuits to compete again, he said, but not one in which the upper leg joints take such a pounding as singles tennis.
‘The reason for having an operation like that is not to return to professional sport, it’s to have a better quality of life,’ he said.
The scale of ambition seemed to be a normal existence in which he would be able to partake in games with his three children, while enjoying preferred hobbies such as golf and five-a-side football.
Lest we forget, Murray’s travails with his hip date back to the early summer of 2017. No wonder they were able to make a feature-length documentary of unsparing detail, entitled Resurfacing.
The same surgery to insert a metal cap had permitted American Bob Bryan to resume playing in the less physically taxing doubles code, but hip issues had claimed the careers of multiple singles players in recent decades.
Even those familiar with Murray’s bloody-minded determination, which had carried him from a remote Scottish tennis outpost to the US and Wimbledon titles, feared that playing doubles might be the realistic limit.
His hip injury refused to ease and so he underwent surgery with the aim of fixing the problem
His route back was tough but he won a double title at Queen’s alongside Feliciano Lopez
Leon Smith coached his fellow Scot as a teenager, and then again as Davis Cup captain, and wondered if the player could coax one last chapter out of his body.
The last three years have required huge spans of painstaking, mind-numbingly boring rehabilitation work on Murray’s account, but Smith points to the significance of a largely forgotten episode in his teenage years.
‘When he was 17, Andy had a prolonged time away from the court with a knee issue related to his bi-partite condition,’ says Smith of Murray’s split patella which he was born with.
‘He was out for around six months and I was struck by his ability and willingness to do all the rehab at a young age. There were months and months spent in the Scottish winter doing sessions in the swimming pool and going to the Institute of Sport.
‘He had the discipline to do that and learned from it. As soon as he got back he made it to the final of a major junior final at Roehampton where he lost to Gael Monfils. Ivan Lendl (Murray’s former coach) used to say that he thought he was good at doing rehab work – until he met Andy.’
Doubles allowed him to build up a feel for the game again as he partnered Serena Williams
Singles was the focus and he won his first singles title since surgery in Antwerp in October
The combination of work ethic off the court, and fighting spirit upon it, has rarely ceased to amaze Smith, who will be watching from afar on Tuesday.
‘I’ve seen it countless times how he doesn’t give up and finds a way to win. That year we played the quarter-final against France at Queen’s, and Andy had lost the Wimbledon semi-final to Roger Federer the week before. Imagine what had already been taken out of him. By the final day of the tie, he was exhausted after playing two consecutive days off the back of Wimbledon, and had to play Gilles Simon, who gets everything back. Andy had a set point against him to go two sets down but he just wouldn’t let go.
‘I was sitting there and thinking to myself, “This guy is completely empty, completely spent, I can’t believe he keeps coming back”. He broke Simon’s spirit in the end to win in four sets.’
Murray played many similar matches the following year, his best ever. He amassed a 78-9 singles record in 2016, winning Wimbledon, the Olympics and reaching world No 1 at the ATP Finals in London.
Murray has continued to retain a steely determination and has continued to improve his game
Beating Alex Zverev at the Western & Southern Open was his first win over a top 10 player in more than three years and that will give him belief that he can progress at the US Open
Overhauling the starred trio of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic took a superhuman effort, and therein lie the roots of his problems. It was at the French Open of 2017 that his hip began to rebel against the constant strain caused by that, and issues have been with him ever since. The difference between Murray now and then is that he can no longer ‘load’ his training in the quantities that he used to. His speed and stamina, still impressive, are not quite the same.
His skill, know-how and determination, however, still see him just inside the top 10 of the favourites with the bookies to win at Flushing Meadows. He will be buoyed by defeating world No 7 Alex Zverev last week, albeit with some assistance from the German’s flaky serve.
Nishioka, who beat Dan Evans in straight sets at January’s Australian Open, plays in a manner similar to the aforementioned Simon. It is likely to be very hard work – a microcosm perhaps of the last three years.
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