Andy Murray began 2019 thinking it would be the end. He’d lost his battle with his own body – the hip that couldn’t be made good again had won – so down in Melbourne he poured honey on his breakfast cereal, watched The Inbetweeners on his laptop and got ready for what seemed certain to be his last-ever competitive tournament.
There were laughs during the comedy but there had been tears earlier in the media room upon his arrival at the Australian Open. He wanted to stop at this year’s Wimbledon, he said, but wasn’t sure of being able to last that long, the pain was so severe. On an empty court before his match with Roberto Bautista Agut he recalled previous victories there. It had been a favourite venue of his for attracting the backpackers – “real tennis fans” rather than the rich folk – and a few hours later Murray treated them to a greatest-hits retrospective of his gung-ho style, although he ended up losing.
Game over, career over? There was one last possibility, a final glimmer of hope. An operation to resurface the hip; in effect leave him with a metal one. But, he stressed, the aim wasn’t necessarily to get him back to elite tennis but simply to provide him with “a better quality of life”.
But quality of life for Murray, even though he has a lovely family waiting for him at home, still involves that infernal yellow ball, the things it does on a court, the things he can make it do. As he confessed in his Amazon Prime documentary, the post-tennis existence scares him.
So he had the op. Murray is famed for his swottiness. Reading up 10,000 words on a topic, especially if it’s going to help win an argument, doesn’t daunt him. He’s “geeky”, according to his wife Kimberly. So the film showed him researching resurfacing on the internet. “They’re literally using a hammer!” he winced. And sure enough, when he went under the knife, a hammer was involved, too.
The surgery was a success. Ah, but he’d felt good in rehab after a previous operation until he got back on the court, twisting, turning, chasing down shots and lost causes. He cannot play the game effortlessly, like he’s got a cocktail party later and may not even have to shower, which is how Roger Federer appears to play it. Roger’s Roger and Andy’s Andy.
He got himself ready for Queen’s where he’s a five-times champ. That’s singles but this would be doubles in tandem with Feliciano Lopez. Sure, Murray benefited from not having to protect all of the court himself, charging from corner to corner, but some of the old flashing drives were there and two years after hobbling out of Wimbledon, using his racquet as a crutch, he’d won another title.
So, was he going back to SW19? Yes he was. Still in the doubles, but the men’s and the mixed. Twosomes at the All-England Club normally play before smatterings of hard-core oldsters; not in 2019. Murray packed ’em in, partnering Pierre-Hugues Herbert and as one half of Murrena, the superstar dream-team with Serena Williams. Murrena were coy about their intentions, keeping Wimbers in suspenders like a Hollywood leading man waiting on his love interest to sign up for the big movie.
There were no further titles but Murray had the most enormous fun back on Centre Court as he continued his rehab in full, rapt, delighted public view. So, was this going to be Murray from now on: stellar doubles eventually winding down to exhibition matches and a seat in the commentary-box next to Tim Henman? Not if he could help it.
In October in Antwerp he gave Stan Wawrinka a set and a break of a start before possibly – all things considered, the tears, the pain, the doubts, the false dawns to say nothing of all that hammering – contriving the greatest fightback of his tennis life to win the European Open and his first singles title for more than two years.
Were we surprised? The cold, hard facts of being forced to play with a cold, hard metal hip would suggest we should have been. But looking at the identity of the player, perhaps we shouldn’t.
In his film, Resurfacing, there’s a hell of a lot of Murray making tennis moves but without racquet and ball. He mimics a tight, fast rally at the net in a swimming pool, in sand and wired up to a contraption measuring his progress as he strives to get back to something like the champ he used to be. At the height of his frustrations, of making tennis moves but far from a court, he sighs: “This might sound like a dick thing to say, but I really feel like I don’t deserve this.”
He doesn’t, and those closest to him were never in any doubt that he would return to winning ways. Mum Judy says he’s got “unfinished business”. Brother Jamie adds: “It’s not in his DNA to quit.” All those people who wrote him off and said he was finished? Really, they never stood a chance.