Andy Murray beaten but back in the swing

Andy Murray returns a shot to Richard Gasquet during his 6-4, 6-4 defeat by the Frenchman in the first round last night. Picture: Getty.
Andy Murray returns a shot to Richard Gasquet during his 6-4, 6-4 defeat by the Frenchman in the first round last night. Picture: Getty.
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Andy Murray lost on his return to singles action last night, going down 6-4, 6-4 to Richard Gasquet in the first round of the Cincinnati Masters.

But, seven months after his last match, the scoreline was far from being the most important thing for the 32-year-old Scot. He needed to be out there to find out if, following his second hip surgery at the start of the year, he still had what it takes to compete individually. The answer was a resounding yes.

Granted, it is far too early to tell if Murray has a realistic chance of ever again hitting the heights that brought him three majors and an Olympic gold medal, but that is not the issue at present. What he needs to know at present is whether his body can withstand the rigours of top-class tennis.

In that regard, an encounter with a player as versatile as Gasquet was the perfect workout. Had the Scot been up against a one-dimensional big server, he might have learned little other than how well his return – always one of the key elements of his game – was functioning. Against the Frenchman, by contrast, he had to run and twist and turn, and vary his own game in a bid to outfox his opponent.

Inevitably, there were moments when he looked rusty, and Gasquet was at times adept at exposing his weaknesses. But at others, Murray did enough to sow some doubt in the mind of his opponent, who has often fallen short at the highest level because of a lack of self-belief when it matters most.

Gasquet also underwent surgery at the start of the year, for a hernia, and was out for around three months. He too is still on the road back to peak mental and physical fitness, but after a score and more of matches since his return he is a lot further down that particular road than Murray.

He showed as much at the start of the match, easily breaking serve. It was an inauspicious start for the former Wimbledon champion, but he quickly got up to speed in the contest, breaking back in the fourth game then taking the lead for the first time at 3-2.

However, he was broken again two games later, and although he held serve easily from 3-5 down, that was as good as it got for him in the set. Having wobbled a couple of times in the preceding 40-odd minutes, Gasquet was at his most resolute when it mattered, serving out to love.

The second set followed a similar pattern, as Murray again lost serve in the opening game. He had a chance to break back in the fourth game, when he went from 0-40 down to game point, but Gasquet again rallied when he had to.

The Frenchman, pictured, did the same again in the sixth game, albeit after a couple of very shaky moments. He threw in a couple of double faults – his fifth and sixth of the match – to hand Murray a lifeline, but again recovered to go 4-2 ahead.

It was not exactly a procession for Gasquet after that, but he always had that little bit more of form and fitness when it was required. Serving for the match, he had to hold steady against a last defiant show of aggression from the Scot, but in the end it was an error 
from Murray that ended the match and gave Gasquet his first win in the fixture for 
seven years.

The winner of this tournament in both 2008 and 2011, Murray never realistically expected to get close to completing a hat-trick of titles. Such a feat would have been little short of miraculous. As it was, even being on the court at all must have felt like a minor miracle to Murray, given how bad he felt when he lost his last match, to Roberto Bautista Agut at the Australian Open – and given, too, the fact that no-one before had had hip resurfacing surgery and been able to resume their singles career.

So what is the next step? Murray is in the doubles here with Feliciano Lopez, with whom he won the Queen’s title a couple of months ago. Once his involvement in that is ended, he will find out how he feels physically, and reassess his playing schedule, with the US Open coming up in just a couple of weeks.

Ideally, before competing at a grand-slam event, Murray would like to be far closer to his best. But he knows that the only way to get there is step by step, by playing his way into form. With that in mind, this match against Gasquet may just prove to be one of the most significant he has participated in for two or three years.