When Andy Murray, her boyfriend of eight years, first won the Aegon Championships in 2009, he high-fived his team, kissed his mother and chastely shook Sears’s hand. When he won the title for the third time in five years on Sunday, he ignored the missus completely and turned to blow a kiss to his best mate, Ross Hutchins, who was watching from the club house balcony.
Still, Sears will not mind too much – she had just watched Murray battle for more than two-and-a-half hours to beat Marin Cilic 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 and, by the end of it, her Andy was himself again. There had been scares and mishaps along the way – and a distinct possibility that he may lose – but, towards the end of the second set and all the way through the third, the world No 2 was looking like a Wimbledon contender with a week to go before the biggest event of the year begins.
The back problems that had ruined Murray’s clay court season were but a distant memory and, save for a slip and a tumble in the first set that had the Scot yelping in pain, he looked to be in mint condition. To beat two good grass court players on consecutive days – he fought his way past Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semi-finals – was a huge boost to his confidence after a month off with that back problem.
But, when he did fall to the ground clutching his groin, it looked for a
moment as if he would never walk again. When he got up and limped gingerly to the baseline, the crowd heaved a communal sigh of relief. Murray still had a tear in his eye.
“The courts have taken a bit of a pounding this week,” Murray said. “It’s been extremely wet, and I think I just lost my footing. It’s a bit sore on the groin area. It hurts. You never know until you start moving around on it how it feels. But, yeah, I mean, when you sort of do like the sort of splits, and you’re not in control, yeah, it hurts the hips a little bit. After a game or two, I knew it was fine, but you still become a little more cautious with your movement for a few games.”
Cilic was the defending champion in London and is, Murray thinks, one of the best grass court players in the business. Then again, the Scot can
afford to heap praise on Cilic – he had beaten him nine times in ten meetings leading into yesterday’s final and absolutely marmalised him at Wimbledon last year. He also uses the tall Croat as a regular practice partner so there is not a lot Murray does not know about Cilic’s game.
It came as no great surprise, then, when Murray nipped smartly out of the starting gate and took a 3-0 lead. He was looking sharp, alert and he was smacking his forehand with abandon. This was an impressive start given that everyone had been hanging about for three hours waiting for the rain to stop. Even when the sun appeared, no one was sure how long it would last and if the weather would hold long enough to get the match finished.
Just when everything appeared to be going well for the Scot, though, he dropped his serve. A couple of fluffed shots cost him dear but the very fact that he had lost his advantage seemed to give him a jolt. Focusing hard, he earned a couple of break points in the next game and was within touching distance of the break back – and that is when he slipped and fell. Once the shock had subsided (and the excruciating pain), the recriminations began.
For a good 40 minutes, Murray was at his grumpy, growling best. The court was too slippery, his shoes were not giving him enough grip – he chuntered away to himself and changed his shoes at the change of ends. After a few games, there was a large pile of discarded footwear lying by his chair. Every shot that flew past him sparked a new attack on his trainers – Murray was not a happy man and Cilic was homing in on the title.
The first set slipped away from the world No 2 and, in the second, he was struggling to make any inroads on the Croat’s serve. Then, slap bang in the middle of the set, Murray earned himself three break points. He may not have been able to convert them but the fact that he had found a hole in Cilic’s defences gave him renewed hope. The chuntering stopped, his shoes were forgiven and the Scot was back in the hunt. And, when he broke the big fella’s serve to take the second set, Murray was a new man – he was aggressive, he was pounding the forehand and he was all over Cilic like a court coverer’s tarpaulin on a rainy day.
“I created loads of chances today, a lot of chances,” Murray said. “I think with a few more matches and a few more days’ practice, I think I’ll do a better job converting them and won’t have the little slip‑ups I had this week. But I got myself in such a great position in all of the sets and all of the matches that I played this week, so that was pleasing. The most important thing next week is just to make sure I keep improving the strength of my back and make sure there’s no sort of setbacks and just keep working hard on the rehab for that. And then, when Wimbledon comes round, it’s all about how you play. A week is a long time in sport. Anything can happen. You can lose a bit of confidence, you can gain confidence. You can pick up a niggle, you can feel 110 per cent. You never know. But I’m in a good place and I just keep working hard the next week.”
And the reason for the kiss for Hutchins? Once his work for the day was done, Murray was back on court for an exhibition doubles match, partnering Tim Henman and taking on Tomas Berdych and Ivan Lendl. The event was staged to raise money for the Royal Marsden Hospital, the cancer centre that has been treating Hutchins since
he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at Christmas. Murray won that, too (deliberately hitting his coach, Lendl, with one beauty of a shot) and then donated his £73,315 AEGON Championship prize money to the cause.