The roar from the crowd when he walked out at Queen’s Club at 3:51pm showed just how much British tennis has missed Andy Murray. The first growled “c’mon” from the man himself as he fended off his first break point showed just how much it meant to Murray to be back.
The 342 days since his last competitive appearance on a tennis court have seemed like an eternity. In that time, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been hoovering up the grand slam titles but it has just not been the same.
Even Chris Evert tweeted with delight when the Scot announced that he would play in the Fever-Tree Championships this week.
And play he did yesterday. After all the fears and frustrations about the state of his hip, all the speculation and debate about the future of his career, Murray played with every ounce of strength he possessed for two hours and 39 minutes before finally losing out to Nick Kyrgios 2-6, 7-6, 7-5.
The sad, hobbling figure who had limped off court in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon last summer was a distant memory. The still limping and deeply unhappy soul who had tried to come back at the start of the season in an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi was far removed from the man who almost had the beating of the world No 21 yesterday.
Of course he looked tired and sore by the end of the three sets. Of course it was asking for too much to think that he would beat Kyrgios. But he came close. Oh, so close.
As the two on-court rivals but off-court friends waited for the coin toss before the match began, Kyrgios ribbed his pal: “Do you remember how to do this, Andy?” the Australian asked. Clearly he did. But at the start of the third set, Murray did appear to have forgotten how to put his shirt on – he had it on back to front at the change of ends. But apart from that, the Scot seemed to be up to speed with everything that he needed to do.
With no obvious sign of a limp until late on in the third set, Murray served well, he returned well, he found angles with his backhand and postage stamps upon which to land his lobs. And he leathered his forehand when he got the chance. The only slight issue was the running around bit. Hitting the ball was one thing; running and hitting it took a little time to work up to.
Then again, every player treats their first grass-court match with caution. At the best of times, it takes time to adapt to the slick surface on which the footing can be treacherous. When a bloke has not played at all for almost a year, it was hardly surprising that it took a while before he trusted the ground beneath his sneakers.
But after a few games to get a feel for the court and to get the adrenaline flowing, Murray did not hold back. He pushed himself to chase every ball, he lunged out wide, he hurtled forward for drop shots – sometimes he made them, sometimes he didn’t. But there seemed to be no fear in his movement, no concern that he could hurt his hip again.
For a set, Murray was in charge. For a set, it was nip and tuck and then for the last set, Kyrgios served first and with his nose in front, he edged his way to the second round.
The world No 21, who never won a match at Queen’s Club or against Murray before, was having trouble dealing with both the Scot’s returns and the moment itself. When Kyrgios reached each of his three match points, he did not want to celebrate or get too excited – “I really didn’t want to get into his grill at all,” he said – because of the importance of the match to Murray. He was pleased to see his friend back but he was just as keen to beat him.
When Murray double faulted on the last match point, Kyrgios could at last relax and enjoy his win. The crowd, although disappointed that Murray had lost, could go home happy that their man was back in business.
Beaten, tired but, finally, back in business.