One year on, strug­gling Mur­ray knows that time is run­ning out

Scot does not know how much longer he can play Heavy de­feat in Bris­bane af­ter chas­ten­ing 12 months

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Tennis - By Si­mon Briggs TEN­NIS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

On Wed­nes­day, it will be ex­actly a year since Andy Mur­ray en­tered St Vin­cent’s Hos­pi­tal in Melbourne for his hip arthroscopy. “To­day was the hap­pi­est I have ever seen him,” said his sur­geon, Dr John O’Don­nell, in an in­ter­view with Seven News that af­ter­noon. “He is very con­fi­dent and I am sure that if any­one can do well af­ter this surgery then Andy can.”

It was in­ter­est­ing, then, to hear Dr O’Don­nell pop­ping up again last week on BBC Ra­dio 5 Live, this time with a rather less up­beat mes­sage. “It wasn’t re­ally at a stage where we could at­tempt to make his hip nor­mal,” he said. “It was just to try and make it as much bet­ter as we could.”

We should em­pha­sise that Dr O’Don­nell is ar­guably the world leader in the field. He prob­a­bly per­forms more hip arthro­scopies than any other sur­geon, which is why pro­fes­sional ath­letes rou­tinely travel to his door. But some in­juries are sim­ply un­fix­able. The hip is a sealed ball-and-socket joint and when the ar­tic­u­lar car­ti­lage that lines the in­side of the socket be­comes badly damaged, there is no re­li­able so­lu­tion.

Per­haps in 10 years’ time, sci­en­tists will have worked out a way of grow­ing car­ti­lage in a lab and pip­ing it into a pa­tient. Un­for­tu­nately, Mur­ray needs a so­lu­tion in the next few months, be­cause time is run­ning out for his ju­ryrigged body.

No one doubts his mo­ti­va­tion, which came through in heart-rend­ing fash­ion as he gave his post-match in­ter­view in Bris­bane on Tues­day. “I want to try and en­joy play­ing ten­nis as long as I can,” Mur­ray said, his voice quiv­er­ing through a throat-lump the size of a bas­ket­ball. “I don’t know how much longer it’s go­ing to last but we’ll see.”

The Scot’s com­ments fol­lowed his straight-sets vic­tory over James Duck­worth, a classic Aussie bat­tler who has been through five op­er­a­tions of his own in the past cou­ple of years. But only 24 hours later, it was Mur­ray’s turn to leave the court quickly af­ter a 7-5, 6-2 thump­ing at the hands of Daniil Medvedev, a fast-ris­ing 22-year-old from Rus­sia. This time it was Medvedev who found him­self ad­dress­ing the mi­cro­phone at Pat Rafter Arena, and he rubbed salt into the wound by ad­mit­ting: “When I was lead­ing 4-0 in the sec­ond set I started to think, ‘Who will be my next op­po­nent?’”

How undig­ni­fied. Such re­sults must test Mur­ray’s pas­sion for the sport.

Be­fore the tour­na­ment, he had told re­porters that there was noth­ing he did not like about his com­pet­i­tive life. He even claimed to have come to terms with his reg­u­lar in­ter­ro­ga­tions by the me­dia. And yet, there is one thing he as­suredly does not en­joy, and never will: los­ing.

The con­trast with No­vak Djokovic, his near-ex­act con­tem­po­rary, is stark. Yet even for the world No1 – a man re­stored to form and fit­ness af­ter last year’s el­bow is­sues – it is not easy to keep up with the pace of to­day’s game.

In Doha last week, Djokovic fought out a se­ries of de­mand­ing three-set­ters against op­po­nents who were swing­ing harder than Peter Stringfel­low. One of them, Ge­or­gia’s Nikoloz Basi­lashvili, main­tained an as­ton­ish­ing av­er­age speed of 88mph off his fore­hand wing. The whole tour­na­ment seemed to be played on fast for­ward and Djokovic looked un­der­stand­ably ex­hausted by the time he lost to Roberto Bautista Agut in Fri­day’s semi-fi­nal. These matches were a re­minder that power reigns among the next gen­er­a­tion.

By con­trast, Mur­ray’s per­for­mances last week were wor­ry­ingly short on of­fence and he spent much of his con­test with Medvedev – an­other huge hit­ter – scam­per­ing left and right in des­per­ate re­trieval mode. Un­less you can match Djokovic’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily nim­ble foot­work, or take the ball as early as Roger Fed­erer, the mod­ern ATP tour is no coun­try for old men.

In the in­ter­view room af­ter his Bris­bane de­feat, Mur­ray sounded philo­soph­i­cal, even about the spell when he lost seven straight games in a blur of Medvedev win­ners. As he ac­knowl­edged: “I need to work out how to get around some of the things I strug­gle with right now.”

What might those so­lu­tions be? More vol­ley­ing, per­haps, to shorten points. But it is hard to imag­ine Mur­ray finding a bal­ance that will carry him back into the higher ech­e­lons. Not when he still has trou­ble walking from one side of the court to the other. And then, the ques­tion is hard to avoid: what, ex­actly, are you play­ing for?

Yes, Lley­ton He­witt has been pre­pared to sol­dier on for years as a non­con­tender, en­joy­ing the oc­ca­sional late-night show­down un­der the flood­lights of Melbourne or New York. But few great play­ers are wired that way.

Equally, though, most ten­nis gi­ants ex­pect the sat­is­fac­tion of one last curtain call, even when their body starts to be­tray them. And that fi­nal mo­ment of val­i­da­tion may be what Mur­ray is hold­ing out for.

A chas­ten­ing 12 months have surely tor­pe­doed his hopes of win­ning more grand-slam ti­tles. As we build up to next week’s Aus­tralian Open – the first ma­jor of what could be his fi­nal sea­son – one sus­pects that his pri­or­ity is now to leave the game on his own terms.

Thump­ing loss: Andy Mur­ray (right) con­grat­u­lates Daniil Medvedev in Bris­bane

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