Andy Murray was just delighted to be back. He was tired, dripping with sweat and a long way from his best but he had won a match at the US Open. This was what all the hard work was for, this was what had kept him going through the months of rehab and recovery after his hip surgery: he could play and compete again.
Murray beat James Duckworth 6-7, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 yesterday in a match that will hardly define his career but one which clearly meant the world to him.
“I’m very happy to be back,” he said, stating the blindingly obvious. “At times it was tricky, especially early in the match. It was very lively. It was very hot and the ball was flying around. James was serving big and playing a lot of drop shots and throwing me off my rhythm a lot, so I’m happy I managed to get through that and played some good stuff at times.
“I made a bit of a change on the return games. I started standing a little bit further back to give myself a bit more time and got myself into a few more rallies that way. Once I got into the rallies I was a bit more comfortable. I found my range with the ground strokes and improved from there.”
Every tournament is another test of how far Murray has come, how far he has yet to go and how much progress he has made since he last stepped on court. Yesterday’s examination went a little further than planned: true, he was testing the waters in his first best-of-five set match since last July but that did not mean that he had always planned to use four of those five sets in order to do so.
It was not a riveting match by any means: two men trying desperately to reclaim their former glories after lengthy injury breaks was never likely to produce breath-taking action. But for Murray, it was all part of the building process.
At the start of the month he had navigated a path through three three-set matches in four days and was able to walk off the court unaided in Washington. That was an achievement to tick off on his comeback to-do list. Yesterday was another milestone passed: to keep mind and body together over the course of three hours and 17 minutes to win his first grand slam match in more than a year.
The next test will be to see how well he recovers before facing Fernando Verdasco tomorrow. It is a long and painstaking business coming back from injury but when that injury was a potentially career-threatening hip problem that required surgery and a little under a year away from the courts, the comeback is even more complicated.
In terms of the tennis, there was little to report: Murray played well in the first set but could not take his chances. No matter Duckworth’s first serve was firing at only 34 per cent accuracy, Murray still could not break it and a couple of errors in the tiebreak cost him the set. Duckworth was not allowed to get away with such erratic serving in the second set and the longer the match went on, the better Murray got. But it is still a long, long way from his best which for a former world No 1, must be unbearably frustrating. Still, it is a better position to be in than the one he found himself just a couple of months ago when he took his first tentative steps back on to the practice courts.
The howl of “come on!” Murray let out when he held serve for 6-5 towards the end of a desperately tight third set told the whole story. He sounded as if he had just saved a championship point rather than inched a little closer to a two-sets-to-one lead in the first round. He was doing everything in his power to get the job done on a suffocatingly humid day and the pressure was beginning to tell.
There were winces and grimaces, a fair amount of chuntering and quite a lot of self-analysis (why did he play this shot? How could he have missed that shot?) but it did not matter: he was into the second round of the US Open, an achievement that had seemed so far beyond his reach at the start of the summer.