Andy Murray’s recovery hip surgery has not been simple. But the Briton made his return to the main tour on Tuesday with a hard-fought 6-3 6-7 6-1 victory over Tennys Sandgren. Currently 32 years of age, he finds himself sitting at around 400 in the rankings, which has given Murray a new outlook on what he wants next from his illustrious career. Following his hip surgery, the three-time grand slam winner has claimed that for the first time he is playing ‘pain-free’. The question now is: what should we expect to see from Murray?
A stuttering start to his comeback
Indifferent results in August, losing consecutive matches in straight sets against Gasquet in Cincinnati and then Sandgren in Winston-Salem, convinced Murray to drop down to the Challenger Tour for the first-time since 2005. There he reached the round of 16 at Rafael Nadal’s Mallorca tournament at the end of August, winning back-to-back matches for the first time this year, before falling in a deciding set tie-break to Matteo Viola.
A huge positive was his first serve percentage, which was up almost 15% compared with his earlier matches in 2019. This suggests his hip joint is moving more freely, which will surely give him confidence when rotating his body. But the Briton is due for a busy period in the coming weeks with four tournaments, including the Zhuhai Open, on his calendar. He will hope to gain some match fitness ahead of the 2020 season, but it does rather suggest he is not expecting too many deep runs.
A more laissez-faire approach
In his interviews ahead of his return in Zhuhai, Murray made it clear that he is playing with a more relaxed attitude. He didn’t know what to expect and what level he can reach, but was grateful for his health, deeming this the most important thing in his life. Whilst he has said it would be naïve to expect to return to his best level, it is also apparent that from a technical perspective, his game is still more or less where he would like it to be
The uncertainty surrounds whether he can match the best physically. Given that Murray’s athleticism has been one of the hallmarks of his game, this could prove to be an issue. Boasting a 23-12 5th set win record and once having a 400m time not far off Olympic qualifying, surely a complex hip surgery has had some negative impact. That said, he battled gamely against Sandgren in Zhuhai, winning a crucial 19 minute game to go up a double break in the decider.
That display, against a player who beat him rather handily in Winston-Salem last month, suggests that John McEnroe may not be far wide of the mark in his belief that Murray can return to the top-10 in the rankings. For the moment, however, despite his impressive display in the first round at the Zhuhai Open, one imagines that Murray is relatively unconcerned with his ranking and is instead focused more on getting some wins under his belt.
Zhuhai: A useful indicator
His clash with Sandgren was, in some respects, the perfect re-introduction for Murray, though evidently one that arrived too early in Winston-Salem. The American is a fine player and hits a good ball, but he does not possess massive power. That allowed Murray to work his way into rallies and develop a rhythm. He will likely get more of the same up against Australian young gun Alex De Minaur in the second round. The Australian will provide a sterner test, however.
He has a more impressive all-round game than Sandgren, whose backhand and movement can be real weaknesses. De Minaur is also an excellent returner. As a result, if Murray’s hip problems have caused lasting damage to his serve, which it should be noted was never the strongest part of his game, they will likely be punished by De Minaur. But regardless of the result in their clash, Murray will surely be happy to be back on tour with a win to his name. Not to mention the fact that competing at this level will help his fitness, particularly in such testing conditions.
Something which the injury seems to have given Murray is a sense of perspective. In terms of retirement, he has indicated that he will call time when he feels his progress has stalled. But currently, he is enjoying improving each day, regardless of how slow it may appear and what the outcome may be. Despite saying all the right things, one does get the sense that this might be behind gritted teeth. Being a true competitor and fighter, who knows he belongs at the pinnacle of the game, his injury must still frustrate him beyond words.
In short, no-one knows what to expect from Murray’s recovery in terms of results, but one can expect determination. He showed that in spades up against Sandgren when a lesser player might have wilted. As he steps into the unknown with his career, regardless of how soon it may or may not come to a close, we should all enjoy watching one of the modern greats of the game every time he steps onto the court.
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