Boys will be boys and bragging rights matter. So when James Duckworth was cornered by a group of British reporters and asked about Andy Murray’s recovery from a hip operation, a wry smile spread over his face.
“An” operation? One? Duckworth, a likeable bloke from Sydney, could trump that. In the past 20 months, he has had five operations to get his 26-year-old body back into working order. Three of them were to mend a stress fracture in his foot and the other two were to resolve issues with his right shoulder and elbow. Duckworth has been in the wars of late.
Today, the two patients will meet in the newly refurbished Louis Armstrong stadium in the first round of the US Open. They may never have met on court before but they will have much in common and plenty to talk about once the match is over. As professional athletes, both men have taken their physical abilities for granted for a lifetime; now both of them are learning how to do the basics again.
“It can be a tough road with injuries,” Duckworth said. “When you come back, it’s on your mind because you don’t know how your body is going to react.
“In the last month I’ve been feeling good but in the first few weeks I was pulling up and a bit sore in certain areas but that’s relatively normal after not putting your body through match situations. You can do as much training as possible but playing a match and seeing how you recover is a little bit different. I’m getting used to it again though.”
Duckworth’s woes began last year at the Australian Open. He played one match there before starting on his surgical journey and he did not play again until the start of this year. Attempting to come back in Australia, he managed to play just three matches before he was back at the doctor’s surgery to book in for another couple of ops. Finally passed fit to resume work, he got back on tour at the French Open back in May. Three weeks later, Murray made his comeback at Queen’s Club.
“It’s been pretty rough but the worst of it is behind me and my body has felt good in the last month,” Duckworth said. “Andy has only had one surgery but we both have a bit of an understanding of what it’s like to be out of the game for an extended period and we’re trying to get back and getting used to playing matches day in, day out.
“There were times I feared I wouldn’t play again. I had three surgeries on my foot and that was the biggest thing because I couldn’t run, jump or hop which makes it tough.
“It was only really when I had my last operation on my foot after this year’s Australian Open when I could run around the court to warm-up and you don’t really appreciate those sort of things until they’re gone.”
Duckworth has not exactly set the world alight with his tennis but he is a good, solid pro who has earned $1.2million in prize money and three years ago reached a career high ranking of No 82. Today he is the world’s 448th best player and facing the No 382. He knows that when they were both at their peak, his chances of beating Murray would have been, in his own word, “slim”. Now is as good a time as any to take on the former world No 1.
“My best chance against Andy would have been at Queen’s in his first week back,” Duckworth said ruefully, “but he hasn’t played a best-of-five set match for a long time so I guess this is as good a time as any.
“It’s a tough challenge against Andy but I’m looking forward to it. If I’d played him at his peak then my chances of winning would have been slim. I’ve definitely got a better chance now but it will still be an uphill battle. I’m not the favourite going in but I’ll compete hard and give myself every chance.”
And even if Murray wins – as the form book suggests he will – at least Duckworth will have the better comeback story. Bragging rights matter.