WE HAVE waited for nine months to welcome him back but at last Andy Murray has returned.
There has been a bloke knocking about who looked like Murray, wore the same clothes as Murray and sounded like Murray but the cussed, aggressive, muscular and utterly determined Murray had been missing.
He came back last night to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 and reach the quarter-finals of the US Open.
On the sort of afternoon when the sensible people were staying indoors, clinging to an air conditioning unit, Murray was forcing the sort of performance from himself that might just convince him that he has a shot at winning a second US Open title.
After three unspectacular rounds, he knew he had to play like his old self, his old pre-surgery self, if he was to take his place in the quarter-finals and have a crack at world No 1 Novak Djokovic.
Murray knew he was fit enough for the task ahead of him – even if the temperatures were in the high 80s and the humidity was in the high 60s – but he also knew that he had to keep the blinkers on and his mind focused solely on the point in front of him.
That has been his most difficult challenge all summer and even on Saturday, he let his attention wander against the lowly ranked Andrey Kuznetsov and found himself dragged into a four set scrap. He could not afford to do that against a player of Tsonga’s calibre.
It was only three weeks ago that Tsonga came back from a break down in the third set against Murray to win in Canada. It put a dent in the Scot’s US Open preparations but Tsonga was the first to admit that it did not make a hoot of difference yesterday.
A five-set match against a former champion for a place in the quarter-finals of a grand slam bears no relation to a three-set tour match. Tsonga knew that Murray would be a completely different opponent yesterday.
Before the match, Murray had outlined what he hoped to do against the world No 10, but he was being a little economical with the truth.
“Obviously against the top players you need to do a lot of things well,” he said. “If my return game is on, that will help. He serves big so if I can get a lot of returns in, that would be good.”
That was only the half of it, though. Murray served well, he moved exceptionally well and he was aggressive from all quarters of the court. Running around his backhand time and again in the first set, he was pummelling Tsonga with his forehand and forcing him into errors. Then there were times when Tsonga needed no encouragement – he came up with errors out of thin air as he took his time to warm up and get his teeth into the match.
For the first time in months, Murray looked as if he was ready to push for the top again. He manufactured break points throughout the opening set and even if he could not convert them until the very last game of the set, he kept his cool and stayed patient. Not once did he allow his attention to waver and no matter how frustrated he felt – and once Tsonga had warmed up, he was able to serve his way out of trouble if he needed to – he stuck to the task in hand.
Instead of the usual muttering and growling on the baseline when things were going awry, Murray was urging himself on, telling himself to be aggressive, to use his legs. These were positive pep talks and they kept him on track as Tsonga started to attack.
Of course, there were times when he let rip. When Murray dropped his serve at the start of the second set and then again at the start of the third, he was absolutely fuming. His language was not for the faint-hearted but, once he had got the frustration out of his system, he got back to work. Always looking for an opening, a chink in Tsonga’s defences, he kept the pressure up in almost every rally.
For the first time since he came back from his back surgery, Murray was running and lunging and flexing his not inconsiderable muscles as in days of old.
This was a physical match, not least because of the conditions, but the Dunblane player seemed to have plenty of gas in the tank.
There was not a hint of the cramps that had suddenly and surprisingly affected him in the opening round and, instead, there was the sort of performance that will give him confidence as he prepares to take on Djokovic. Whether he can beat the Serb tomorrow remains to be seen but at least Murray and his team know that he is back to his best. The Murray of old is back in town.
For his part, Djovovic moved comfortably into the quarter-finals by seeing off Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber.
It is the 22nd time in a row that the Seb has reached that stage of a grand slam and Kohlschreiber, the 22nd seed, was the last man to deny Djokovic a place in the last eight of a major tournament, beating him in the third round at Roland Garros in 2009.
But he had no answer this time as Djokovic made a lightning start, winning the first four games and, although Kohlschreiber began to find some rhythm, he could do nothing to prevent a 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 defeat.
Djokovic broke Kohlschreiber twice as he steamrollered his way through the opening set in 25 minutes. The second set was a much closer affair, and Djokovic was serving to stay alive as he trailed 4-5, 30-40, but a cross-court forehand kept him alive and, buoyed, he swiftly broke Kohlschreiber to go two sets up.
Another unforced error from Kohlschreiber put him in an early hole in the third set, and there was no way back.