I was told that if any normal person sat in on hip surgery they would never agree to it themselves. “It’s more like butchery than surgery,” I was told. “There’s blood everywhere. That’s why they wear wellington boots.”
Fortunately, I was told this only after having a total hip replacement in 2011.
This experience explains why I watched Andy Murray’s retirement in January with sadness, why I watched his return to competition – doubles initially – a few months later with trepidation, and why I watched his European Open singles final against Stan Wawrinka on Sunday evening with a sense of awe and incredulity.
I guess that he was rather more diligent with his rehabilitation than I was but, even so, I don’t think anyone, even Murray himself, imagined him winning singles tournaments again – not this year, not ever.
Murray’s physical vulnerability was always part of his appeal: almost every point won seemed to be in defiance of the pain (existential as well as physical) the effort was costing him.
To paraphrase Stinger in Top Gun: his mind appeared to be writing cheques that his body couldn’t cash. First it was a split kneecap, only diagnosed when he was 16, which meant six months on the sidelines in 2004. Then there were back problems, then his ankle went.
When he first started making an impact in senior tournaments he wore a bulky and rather ugly support around the suspect ankle. You winced every time he lunged for a ball and then took an age to get back up. He was 18 but his movement around the court between points could make him look twenty years older (Roger Federer is 38 and moves like an 18-year-old, but that’s another story).
Nine months ago, when his retirement was accepted as inevitable and all those tributes were paid to him at the Australian Open, Murray – for whom it must have felt like attending his own funeral – looked every bit as uncomfortable and embarrassed as you would expect, even if he hadn’t harboured secret fantasies of coming back.
Did he harbour such fantasies? Probably, given his very obvious drive and determination. But he would surely also have been realistic. He would have known there could be no guarantee that surgery would be as successful as it has.
I had the same condition as Murray: hip dysplasia, meaning that the ball of the femur doesn’t fit as snugly in the hip socket as it should. If you have it, chances are you were born with it. It usually affects both hips, as it does in my case (though only one has needed replaced, so far), and there are hip surgeons who have studied Murray’s X-rays, which he posted on social media, who believe that he has the condition in the other hip, too.
When I heard he’d had re-surfacing – where the femur is covered with a metal cap with a layer of metal placed in the socket – rather than a total hip replacement, I was surprised, because re-surfacing was out of vogue when I had surgery.
I was told back then that surgeons were turning against the procedure because there was such a high number of failures. Metal debris could turn up, painfully, in other parts of the body, meaning further, increasingly complicated, surgical procedures. Indeed, for women, the advice remains not to have re-surfacing, with the failure rate deemed unacceptably high (the reasons are anatomical).
“The thing about hip resurfacing is that when they’re good they’re very good,” a hip surgeon told me yesterday, “and when they’re bad, they’re horrid.”
When Murray returned to doubles competition less than five months after his operation he reported “zero discomfort,” even after playing. “I’ll just keep pushing and see how it goes,” he said.
It has gone pretty well. But, more than the physical aspect, it is the psychology that fascinates me.
I can relate to the sheer relief of waking up after surgery with the pain miraculously gone. What I struggle with is the idea that you would return to the activity that caused – or at least accelerated – the problem in the first place.
Any form of running is commonly a casualty of major hip surgery. The risks don’t seem worth it. Tennis, with its changes of pace and direction, and its constant high stress impacts on the joints, would be beyond the pale for most people.
But Murray is not most people and tennis is not only what he does but who he is.
The question as he framed it might have been quite simple: at 32, with a few good years possibly still in him, did he regard himself as a retired tennis player or an injured tennis player?
Even if Murray is now pain-free, the business of watching him play is set to become an even more painful experience.
I will wince even harder when he stretches, lunges and throws himself around. I will also continue to watch with a sense of awe and incredulity.