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
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