After Andy Murray was beaten in the first round of the Australian Open earlier this year by Roberto Bautista Agut in a five-set fight to the finish, the tennis world was ready to bid farewell to a stalwart performer who has captured three major titles, secured a pair of Olympic singles gold medals, led Great Britain to a Davis Cup triumph and concluded the 2016 season as the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Murray had endured a surgery on his hip in January 2018 and played only 12 matches all year long. That kept him out of the sport for eleven months.
Murray realized the surgery had left him compromised. He clearly thought he was on his way out of a profession he loved. After a tearful press conference, in which he hinted that Wimbledon could be his final tournament (watch below), Murray was given a poignant video tribute on court in Melbourne with heartfelt speeches delivered by many leading players, including Novak Djokovic, who is one week younger and one of Murray’s lifelong rivals. Along with many other longtime tennis observers, I was convinced then that we would never see Andy Murray back in top flight competition again.
And yet, this steadfast character with one of the sport’s largest hearts and toughest minds has demonstrably proven his skeptics wrong—and even surprised himself in some ways. This week, following another hip surgery this past January, Murray is competing in doubles alongside the left-handed Spaniard Feliciano Lopez at the Fever Tree Championships at Queen's Club. This is a tournament Murray has won five times in singles. His multitude of fans must be delighted to have the opportunity to witness one of their old heroes at a venue that has so often brought out the best in him.
But this time around his participation, will be limited strictly to doubles. Murray is cautiously optimistic that he might make a return to singles, perhaps later this season, but understands that, at least for the time being, competing solo is not on his table of options. If one trait in Murray has long been apparent, it it this: he is a hard realist, driven by an inner need to push himself to his limits and explore the boundaries of his potential, propelled by the notion that no one knows Andy Murray better than Andy Murray. He follows his instincts as well as anyone in the upper chambers of the game he plays for a living.
So Murray is judiciously starting slowly in his campaign to climb back into the arena. Doubles will, of course, be much easier on his body than singles, and how he fares in that forum will not require the same emotional energy he always brought to his play in singles.
But the way I look at it, Murray may not be simply in a transitional phase of his career, working his way back from another difficult surgery and hoping to use doubles as a springboard toward a resumption of making singles the mainstay of his game once more. Murray just might be starting a new career at 32 as an doubles player exclusively.
Quite simply, Murray’s prime strength in singles has always been his singular propensity to cover the court. His speed has set him apart from almost all of his peers, allowing him to defend skillfully and purposefully, giving him the chance to display his masterful feel for the ball and his inventiveness as a match player. His return of serve is extraordinary, but not stupendous like Djokovic’s. He improved his forehand immensely under the guidance of Ivan Lendl, but he could not measure up to Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer off that side. His first serve has been underrated, yet Federer and Djokovic surpass him with their deliveries.
But Murray’s foot speed, anticipation and efficiency of movement are what made him an outstanding singles player. He will probably never be as fleet of foot as he once was, given his injuries. The best he can hope for is to cover the court about 90 percent as well as he did in days gone by. And that would make him at best a player with a ceiling of between No. 10 and No. 20 in the world. Why should he settle for that?
My projection could be off base. Perhaps Murray’s second hip surgery this past January will eventually lead him back to singles at the highest levels of the game. Maybe he will ease back into competition in doubles, shift seamlessly to singles, remind us of who he was, play in his old and familiar manner, and win with the depth of determination he always had.
That is possible, but I seriously doubt Murray will be able to make that happen. There is no harm in trying briefly to rekindle his singles career and maybe reinvent himself as a player of the front rank looking to finish off points more swiftly, restructuring his game in some respects.
But that is a rosy scenario. I am hoping instead that Murray throws his heart and soul into establishing himself as the best doubles player he can be, reaping enormous emotional rewards from the quest. Murray has the chance to add to his resume by turning this part of his life into a second career. Murray has shown us in Davis Cup over the years what a remarkable doubles player he can be. He can exploit his consistency on the return of serve, put to full use his excellent hands at the net and exceptional court sense. He can join forces with the likes of Lopez and inevitably his supreme competitiveness will rub off on his partners, lead to many triumphs and maybe a few major triumphs—perhaps even with his doubles-playing brother, Jamie.
Andy Murray is setting off on another course, and it will be inspiring to watch him find out what he can accomplish over the rest of 2019 and beyond. The hope here is that Murray turns himself into the outstanding doubles player he surely can be, and settles strictly for a limited comeback that can realistically succeed. The tennis world would be better for it.