When Andy Murray’s serve was broken in what turned out to be the penultimate game of his second-round defeat of his straight sets against qualifier Taro Daniel on Thursday, he threw his racket onto the field, yelling at his box. But few could argue that the sight of the 34-year-old fighting to contain his emotions on a tennis court is still better than fighting the tears away.
The story of Andy Murray’s revival is as much about wins and losses (he’s had five wins in eight games so far this year) as it is about a three-time Grand Slam champion who digs deep and all the way to the bottom to find his way up. in the last leg of his career.
Coincidentally, the Australian Open was an important pit stop during that three-year period.
Think back to the 2019 Australian Open. To that emotional press conference before his opening game where Murray announced a possible retirement due to his physical problems. Three days later, after his five-set defeat to Roberto Bautista Agut, it did indeed look like it.
“If it was my last game it was a great way to finish,” Murray said on the track. Even a video tribute of his fellow pros congratulating him on a great career was played on the screen.
Except, it wasn’t the end. Fast forward to the 2021 Australian Open. Set for the postponed season opening Slam, Murray was forced to withdraw due to quarantine issues after testing Covid positive before flying to Melbourne. He ran to Biella, where a Challenger event was being held the same week the Grand Slam started.
Here was a former No. 1 in the world, with two Wimbledon, one US Open and 46 ATP singles titles, with multiple hip surgeries including a metal joint fitted for the latest resurfacing procedure in 2019, playing on the Challenger Tour on age 33.
While his contemporaries competed for a Grand Slam trophy with the elite in Australia’s most prestigious tournament, Murray toiled in the second tier of professional tennis in northern Italy, making the finals while battling players above the 150.
Later in the season, days after putting on a spectacular show with Stefanos Tsitsipas, third seeded in his opening round of five sets, Murray again fell back on the Challenger circuit and accepted a wild card to play in Rennes. It wasn’t new for Murray to take the Challenger route in his quest for the pinnacle of the sport after hip problems threatened to bring everything to a halt. In August 2019, a few months after his hip surgery, Murray played a Challenger event for the first time in 14 years in Mallorca, the hometown of his rival Rafael Nadal, who – while playing the US Open at the same time – offered him his boat on a day off there.
But Murray was more interested in tennis. As much as possible, regardless of level. It was the only way, Murray knew, that he could get more playing time, a few wins to boost his ranking that had fallen below the top-100 and, most importantly, find his rhythm playing a string of matches. . “It’s just to get matches. I want to keep playing, competing and getting my body used to playing two, three, four games in a week,” Murray said for the Rennes Challenger.
It’s a path not too many top players have taken in the past – Andre Agassi being perhaps the most notable exception – in hopes of reviving their careers. Certainly not Murray’s Grand Slam champion contemporaries. Novak Djokovic, the same age as Murray, last played a Challenger in 2005.
“It’s really incredible,” Somdev Devvarman, India’s former top pro who played regularly on the Challenger circuit, told the official Australian Open broadcaster Sony a few days ago. “Last year around this time he (Murray) played a Challenger. Many former pros wondered… And what did Andy Murray do? He went back to the drawing board. It’s incredible to see him play at a high level again. It’s not top-10 tennis, but high enough.”
Those questions from former players had to do with Murray being awarded a wildcard for a challenger rather than a young up and coming player, or the need for him to keep playing in the first place after all he’d been through physically and emotionally. “There are a lot of people who tell me to stop playing tennis, it’s sad, and they don’t want to see me play like this, and he can’t keep fit, and he can’t do this, why is he still doing this? do,” Murray told The Guardian last June. “And I say, ‘Don’t be sad about me. I like doing this, and I choose to do it.”
It’s been a ride of up and down for Murray since his return in August 2019: one too many first-lap defeats; the 2019 ATP Antwerp title victory, the disrupted 2020 season in which he defeated Alexander Zverev but lost in the second round of the US Open; a typically inconsistent 15-14 win-loss record in 2021. Murray’s optimistic start to this season, which saw a final run in Sydney last week, was followed by a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 second-round defeat in Melbourne to the inspired world No 120 Daniel, the lowest ranked player to beat him in a Slam.
The latest downward curve to the upswing has left Murray “frustrated”, and with a challenge to step it up onto the big stage. “This is a really important year for me for a number of reasons and I want to perform well in the big events,” Murray, who also changed coaches late last year, said on Thursday.
Trust Murray to stick with it for a little while longer.