Over the course of three, error-strewn sets and two hours and 48 minutes, the former world No.1, the three-time grand slam champion and two-time Olympic champion had lost to Taro Daniel, a qualifier ranked No.120. It was Murray’s worst defeat at a major tournament – never before had he lost to a man ranked outside the world’s top 100 at a grand slam.
For all the hope and excitement of the previous week in Sydney where he reached the final; for all the bullish talk of his goals (to reach 50 career titles – he currently has 46 – and to add to his present tally of 696 match wins and reach the milestone of 700), his tame exit from Melbourne Park felt like a body blow to his supporters. To Murray, it was all but unbearable.
But why? Why should we expect any more from a 34-year-old with a metal hip?
In his pomp, Murray was playing around 80 to 85 matches a year; since he had his hip resurfaced in January 2019, he has been able to step onto the singles court just 62 times. And he lost 28 of those matches.
In his pomp, his movement was the foundation of his success while his tactical nous gave him that split second advantage over his rivals. On Thursday, he looked sluggish and unable to formulate a plan to beat Daniel, a man whose greatest weapons appeared to be his speed around the court and his unshakeable belief that this was a chance he was capable of taking.
Tell him that he cannot do something and he cannot help himself: he will shed blood to prove you wrong. It is just the way he is made. And it is that bloody-minded cussedness that has turned him into a serial champion.
Yet when he left Melbourne Park, he could not say for sure whether he would be back next year. “Yeah,” he said, “but not if I do what I did tonight too often this season.” So is that it, then? Is Murray is looking at retirement? No, but he knows that time is running out for him and bionic hip. He knows he cannot afford to waste what chances come his way.
It is one thing to lose a five-set thriller knowing that there is not another drop of fuel left in the tank; it is quite another to play poorly and take a clumping from a man he had thrashed in straight sets for the loss of only five games in their only previous meeting. But back then in 2016, Murray on his way to becoming the world No.1 and still had two organic hips.
This year has been a new start for Murray in many ways. He has a new coach in Jan De Witt, the former mentor to Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon and Nikoloz Basilashvili (Murray’s first round prey on Tuesday). He also has a new racket, one with a slightly larger head that, in turn, has a slightly larger sweet spot and is a little more forgiving than the model he has used for most of his career. Neither of these two facts are a solid excuse for his loss to Daniel but tennis players are creatures of habit and any change takes a bit of getting used to.
His biggest problem is his ranking. He went into the Australian Open as the world No.113 and he should have moved up to around No.102 by the time the event finishes. But that is still a world away from a seeded berth at the big events and in order to climb up the ladder, he needs a few good runs at some of the bigger tournaments. At the moment, just getting into them requires the help of a wild card and sooner or later, that supply of free tickets into the main draw is going to dry up. That would mean enduring the rigours of the qualifying event just to get to the first round proper.
Even with a wildcard but without a seeding, Murray runs the risk of drawing a top name in the opening round – such as Stefanos Tsitsipas at the US Open last year – which makes his goal of stringing some results together and improving his ranking all the harder.
Does this mean it is all doom and gloom for Scotland’s greatest sporting hero? Is he deluding himself that he can recapture even a few of the old glory days? It is impossible to see into the future but of one thing we can be certain: he will keep trying for as long as he knows it is reasonably possible. And as he showed in Sydney last week and in fits and starts at the end of last year, there will be times when he can put it all together. But how many more times he will be able to do it before he retires, not even he knows.
Until Murray decides that enough is enough, no one can fault the effort he has put into his comeback and no one can blame him for wanting to give his career one last shot. After all, it is that bloody-minded cussedness that got him here in the first place.