But yesterday he walked back into his arena and the act assumed near-Biblical proportions. There was mild astonishment in the crowd’s roars as if a long-lost friend had just re-appeared out of nowhere, which in a way he had. “Come on, Andy!” was the cry. “Come on, Scotland ”
Truth be told, the walk was slightly self-conscious, head down, face hidden by his cap, and he’d reached his chair before the right arm was raised in quiet acknowledgement of the rapturous greeting. It was as if he didn’t quite believe he was out there again, which was probably true as well.
He began with an ace and banged in two more in his opening service game. But his opponent, Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia, was able to flash a crosscourt winner off the forehand to remind everyone there was someone else on the other side of the net.
Back in 2017 when he hobbled out of the championships, beaten by America’s Sam Querrey in the quarter-finals, Murray was the reigning champion and No 1 in the world. Last night, after four years of pain, setback, comeback, setback and the insertion of a metal hip joint, he was a wild card with a ranking of 124. But the serving was not that of a 124-man and neither were the backhand drives.
The backhand slice, though, needed some finessing. Hardly surprising, really, with Murray having won only two Slam matches in those four years. When another effort hit the net there was no anger. He wasn’t beating himself up. All things considered, he was happy to be playing once more in front of his wife Kim, mum Judy - and the man who earnestly tried to start up a court-wide chant of “Let’s go, Andy, let’s go” after every winner.
The movement wasn’t that of the champ who once chased down a whooshing ball as if his life depended on it - but again, what did we expect? The first set went with serve until, at 4-4 and deuce, Murray sniffed a chance. Basilashvili, the 24th seed, got out a tight spot with two booming serves. Then another chance for Murray, an exquisite drop shot taking him to 15-30. The applause when Basilashvili served big again was grudging. But Murray wouldn’t be denied and a return summoned from the glory days - not that long ago, after all - won him the first set. He lifted his head and we saw his face. No smile - when did he ever before? - but the mouth was open, a silent cry of pride, mixed no doubt with relief. The crowd, not so silent, responded.
On the hour mark, the second set going with serve, Murray didn’t, or couldn’t, change direction and this seemed to befuddle him. Didn’t or couldn’t? Seven and a half thousand weekend orthopedic surgeons pondered the issue. But when his opponent achieved his first break point the serve came to the Scot’s rescue.
Basilashvili was exerting pressure, though, and two games later reached break point again. Same outcome after more quality serving. This set brought more tension, so Murray would have a few stern conversations with himself, like he used to do all the time. And then it was his turn to make break point. Three fantastic returns forced the error. This time there was no silent roaring and for a moment, the front row bracing themselves, it looked like he might leap into the crowd.
Murray had found a terrific groove. His game-management was superlative. Basilashvili would be reeled in, sent back out, and in his desperation as the contest seemed to be slipping away, thrash wildly. Murray broke him in the first game of the third set to love as he sought a quick conclusion. He broke Basilashvili twice more and after one hour and 45 minutes was running further and faster than he’d done at the start of the contest.
At 0-5 down Basilashvili achieved another rare break point and this time he saw it through. A comeback? The Georgian broke Murray again. It was time for our man to hold his nerve - something he invariably did back when he was winning majors, although even then - unintentionally, no doubt - he liked to toy with the crowd’s emotions.
Then, another thrash from Basilashvili, two set points for Murray. When one went awry he thrashed at the ball like a bratty teen. Probably, even those who used to tut-tut such behaviour were pleased to see it resurface. But having been within sight of victory, Murray was being pegged right back. The momentum was with his opponent who won seven games in a row. Suddenly, from threatening to skip merrily on that problematic hip, Murray was hangdog.
A prolonged match was not what he wanted, especially not when he’d been able to scent a roll-back-the-years victory. The players went off while the court was covered, Murray to try and re-set. On their return he broke Basilashvili immediately, surrendered his own serve, but broke again. By now he was playing from memory. How had he gritted it before? Ah yes. He was breathing heavy, now and again berating himself or bellowing at his box, sometimes both, the chance for 4-1 just missed. Considering how little tennis he’d played, this was already a phenomenal effort. Could the nerve hold? Could the serve hold? Third match point. Not quite. Fourth - done. Throw away that walking stick, Andy.