Apprehension and even mere exhibition tennis have always gone hand in hand for the ultra-professional Andy Murray, he confessed yesterday. Until last night at a sold-out Glasgow Hydro, that is. He wasn’t nervous for the charity event that takes his name, he said, but simply content to be playing again.
The second such occasion staged, it took on an entirely different feel from 12 months ago because of the backdrop to it. This time around, we were treated not to the No 1-chasing, peak-of-his-powers Murray. Instead, this was the lesser-spotted Murray; the Scot effectively getting the chance to come out of hibernation having not played tennis in front of a crowd since Wimbledon because of hip issues that have led to gloomy predictions about his career. And doing so against the comeback – and every sort of – king of the court Roger Federer.
As it turned out, Murray was better than dared be hoped. Granted, there were times, especially early on, when he moved gingerly, and with a limp. Moreover, with Federer winning one match wearing a kilt, and Murray losing the elongated tie-break that replaced a third set decider wearing a See You Jimmy Hat – “It covers my bald patch,” Murray joked – we weren’t being treated to ultra-competitive tennis in front of a bawdy Hydro crowd.
All that notwithstanding, there were moments where Murray made winners he would have delighted in producing on any occasion. “It went better than I expected,” he said of the 3-6, 6-3 (5-10) defeat that came in an hour and 42 minutes. “I was just really happy to be out here and it went pretty well. There are things I want to do better but, for a first match in four or five months, it went great. I felt pretty good, not perfect yet, but I’m going in the right direction.”
The unspecified hip condition that prompted questions over what sort of Murray would be in action last night, and what sort of player might return to the game for the Australian Open in January, brought a piquancy to last night’s events.
Whatever state the Scot was in, it was never going to bring a flaying by Federer. The tennis great was also out to enjoy himself, give the crowd value, and welcome back a man he treated like a brother in the pre-match media briefing, even eliciting an ‘aaw’ from the press pack when offering up his delight at seeing Murray back on court with the heartfelt: “I miss you man”.
Murray, now 16th in the world after his season ended in July, maintains his time out from the game this year will allow him to be restored to the man who has claimed three grand slam titles, two Olympic golds and the highest ranking in his sport.
“I believe I will, yes,” he said when asked about his confidence of returning to 100 per cent. “You never know when you’re coming back from any injury, but that’s what I’m working towards, for sure. We have to see, but I believe that will be the case. When I get back on the court next year and start playing again it might not come immediately at the beginning of the year. I might not play my best tennis straight off, but there’s nothing making me think [otherwise].
“I believe that with the work that I’m doing – and I have been hitting the ball very well in practice. It’s just that there is a difference between that 75-80 per cent practice and going flat out at 100 per cent for two-and-a-half or three hours on the match court. Until I do that I can’t say for certain, but I think I’ll be able to come back just fine.”
The example of Federer, who this year won two grand slam titles after having been written off because of advancing years and injury problems, might seem to offer Murray encouragement. The fact is, though, Federer is at a freakishly high level, as reflected in a 19 grand slam title haul that no-one who has ever played the game can rival.
Murray’s concerns must be more prosaic. He draws succour from being able to avoid surgery on his hip, back surgery in 2013 resulting in struggles to play at his very best for the following year. Murray would not elaborate on the precise nature of the hip problem he is seeking to overcome.
“Well I don’t want to go into…,” he said. “There are a few things going on in my hip that I don’t need to talk about here, but, look, I’m sure most athletes do that when they have an issue. It had been causing me a problem for six, maybe eight weeks, from really the French Open right through until I was really struggling by the end of Wimbledon.
“It became a big issue there and I was like: I need to get this sorted out, I need to chat to some people. So I spoke to a bunch of specialists. Surgery was not recommended for me and obviously that’s great. You never know how you’re going to come back from surgery. If you can go a conservative route it’s better. So I sat down with my team and it was like: Let’s just take time to get ready again, do all of the rehab, get yourself as strong as possible. And that’s one of the few positives of a break like this. You get the opportunity to do a lot of work in the gym and build up your strength and your endurance. You obviously just can’t spend time on the match court, which ends up being the most important thing.”
With his exertions last night, Murray spent as much time on a tennis court as he has through this period seeking to resolve his hip difficulties.
“Some days I’ve been on the court for a couple of hours. Those two hours are not 100 per cent intensity,” he said. “I’m working on some more technical things. I’m not doing, like, a massive pounding through my body and through my joints – but I’ve spent a decent amount of time on court. Certainly I’ve spent more time in the gym with my physios than I have on the tennis court, but the last week, ten days, I’ve been on the court an hour-and-a-half, two hours, most days, just trying to build up slowly.”
He expects this build-up to take him all the way to Brisbane at the start of next year and a tournament he has agonisingly never won despite reaching the final five times. “I mean I hope I’m there, things have been going pretty well so far in the rehab,” he added. “But you just never know, you take each week as it comes, you have setbacks and then things come on quite quickly as well. I’ve been training for a few weeks now, some days I’ve felt great, some days not so good but I’m getting there and I’ll come back when I’m ready and 100 per cent fit. I made probably a bit of mistake trying to get ready for the US Open but it was the last major of the year and I wanted to give it a go and now it’s been time to give my body the rest and recovery it needs and I will come back when I’m ready.”