It was a press conference that broke the collective heart of a nation. The sight of Andy Murray choking up and forced to take a tear break as he admitted that due to a persistent hip injury his playing days may be over.
That was back in January but this week, Murray will return to competitive action, albeit in doubles, as he takes the next step on what he hopes will be the road back to elite level singles play.
While, in a very public setting, the doubts gnawed at his world-famous steely resolve that day in Australia and no doubt dogged him as a litany of tributes followed in the press, on social media and on a giant screen after he lost in five sets to Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, friend and former Davis Cup team-mate Tim Henman does not believe Murray ever really accepted in his own mind that a comeback was out of the question.
“I just think that in Andy’s mind, I don’t think he has ever stepped away,” said the former grand slam semi-finalist, who was in Scotland this week to participate in the Brodies Invitational at Gleneagles. “I know there were all those tributes and people thought that might be the end after Australia, but I don’t think he has ever been ready. Obviously, fighting a hip injury, then the surgery and then straight into this rehab, it has been relentless and I know what was said back then but I don’t think that stopping was really in his mind.
“He knows he will have to stop one day but I think he is still massively motivated and wants to get back to playing at the highest levels on the singles court.”
Before heading north for the exhibition tournament, playing alongside Henri Leconte and Thomas Envquist, Henman has enjoyed some hitting practice with Murray at Wimbledon and joined the former World No 1 for a press conference at Queen’s Club, where the competitive comeback will commence this week.
“It has been so hard for him physically, and mentally. That’s the element people tend to forget. When you reflect, it was Wimbledon 2017 when he was in the quarter-finals pretty much on one leg and was still 2-1 sets up on Sam Querry but he was in so much pain and that was the state of play until he had the operation. There was so much frustration that it wasn’t really getting better, he was always playing in pain but to see him now, more than four months into the rehab and not in pain, there is a completely different mentality you see in him. He can enjoy his life, enjoy his rehab in the knowledge that there is progress and, hopefully, he can enjoy his tennis.”
So early in his road back, there remain doubts about how high the three-time grand slam winner can climb. Having once tussled with the talented triumvirate of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal and defied their dominance to collect tour titles, two Olympic golds, the World Tour title and to top the world rankings, the ascent would need to be steep, but Henman says this week’s return will be a vital stepping stone.
“When I hit with Jamie and Andy on Monday, at Wimbledon, you could see that the doubles is a great option for him. His recovery is going well and to get on a match court, in any environment is good. He still has a way to go before he can think about playing in the singles but there is a lot of excitement around.
“He said when I was with him at Queens Club on Wednesday that it is the goal, to get back on a singles court and compete and if I was to say yay or nay to whether he can do that, I would say yeah, I think he will. His improvement in the last four to six weeks has been brilliant and hopefully that will continue.”
A long slog but the enforced and prolonged absence from the high performance level could be a long-term benefit to Murray who, says Henman, should now be able to postpone retirement and ultimately bow out on his own terms, when he feels the time is right, not simply when it seems necessary.
“I think that was where it was difficult for him. He wasn’t ready,” he said of the Scot who still loves the sport and is a born competitor. “That is obviously not the way you would want to stop so I hope this gives Andy the opportunity to play as long as he wants and then when he does retire, it allows him to do it on his own terms.”
Which could be later than Murray himself envisaged prior to the setback. “Yeah, having had this break it maybe gives him the chance to play on a bit longer. I played until I was 33 and there are definitely people playing on longer now so it may give him the opportunity to lengthen his career. But we have just got to wait and see how good his progression is and how close he can get back to where he was.”
The fear is that if he doesn’t achieve the goals, there remains a void in British men’s tennis. In the absence of Kyle Edmond being able to kick on after his Australian Open semi-final in 2018, the lack of a home favourite to cheer on has resulted in a dip in interest in the sport.
“Suddenly, there wasn’t the same focus or attention from the British public or the press. So it is a challenge for him to get back there and for others to step up.”
For that conveyor belt of talent, money needs to be invested wisely, with the participation levels in all sport in need of a boost to bolster the athletic base tennis recruits from. In Britain accessible facilities are also vital.
Judy Murray is fighting for funding from the LTA and the Scottish Government to provide the indoor courts that are vital to development in Scotland and Henman says that while facilities are only part of the answer, those kind of plans should not be ignored. “Whether you want to call it a legacy programme or whether you just want to say that this is the right infrastructure to provide, I think we have got to do that.
“The reality is that it doesn’t come cheap but given the profit of Wimbledon going to the LTA for the benefit of British tennis, that is something that has to be looked at to make sure we have the money in place.
“Whether in Scotland or Cornwall or Manchester we should have facilities all over the country so that kids have the opportunity and it is all about the accessibility of the game if we want more kids to play. And for them to be able to play throughout the year, we need those types of facilities.”