Tennis

Andy Murray Makes a Satisfying, if Not Rousing, Return in London

LONDON — In many ways, Thursday’s scene here in London was reminiscent of the one that played out a year ago.

Again, Andy Murray was returning to Queen’s Club from a long layoff that included surgery.

Again, it was a match that often lacked much atmosphere despite a supportive crowd. Last year, it was because he was playing a friend and mercurial opponent in Nick Kyrgios, who felt awkward winning against a competitor he was close to.

This time, it was a first-round doubles match late in the day, and more than half the crowd had departed before the end of the first set.

But to Murray, the internal feeling was completely different. In 2018, he was limited by hobbling pain after an ineffective operation.

“Last year when I came on the court, I was quite emotional and stuff, because I hadn’t played for a long time,” Murray said Thursday of his loss to Kyrgios. “I didn’t get loads of enjoyment out of the match. I was more worried about my hip than anything else.”

But after what he called a “life changing” hip resurfacing operation in January took away his chronic pain both on and off court, Murray’s satisfaction was visible on Thursday — and the result was positive: He and his partner, Feliciano Lopez, beat the top-seeded Colombian pair of Juan Sebastián Cabal and Robert Farah 7-6 (5), 6-3.

After he shook hands with his opponents and the umpire, Murray broke into a broad smile, showing clearly his relief in feeling good on a tennis court for the first time in years.

“I have zero discomfort in my hip,” Murray said. “After the match — nothing. And if I had done this last year, you know, I’d be here aching, throbbing, and feel bad the next day.

“So I’ll just keep pushing and see how it goes. But I feel optimistic about the future.”

That Murray was even discussing a future in the sport was remarkable. The last time he played a competitive match was at this year’s Australian Open, where he announced he would only play until Wimbledon, if not stopping earlier.

After Murray lost a hard-fought first-round match to Roberto Bautista Agut, his career was eulogized by other players in a video played in Melbourne Arena.

Though he left the door slightly ajar— “If this was my last match, an amazing way to end,” he said — it certainly didn’t seem likely to swing as wide open as it has.

“When I had spoken to my team in December, I had said that I wanted to stop at Wimbledon, because I didn’t want to play anymore,” Murray recalled Thursday. “I was getting no enjoyment out of anything. But then after that match in Australia, I said to my team, ‘Honestly, if that’s it, I’m absolutely fine with that if that’s the end.’”

Murray had been consulting with doubles star Bob Bryan, who had successfully returned from the same hip surgery, in which metal resurfaced the ball and socket of his hip. Murray’s surgery, soon after his elimination in Australia, was also a success, allowing an unexpected exhumation of a career that came to fruition here.

The atmosphere at the restart felt far less monumental than the embrace he received five months ago. Through much of the first set, the crowd was muted after exchanges that did not primarily feature Murray. Murray, too, seemed somewhat tentative in the first set.

He reached the top singles ranking in 2016 in large part by using his superior conditioning and physicality to wear down opponents; on Thursday he seemed especially keen to rely on his trickery and finesse, often carving softer, sharply angled shots rather than engage in bruising exchanges.

His comfort level seemed to increase as the match went on. He closed out the sixth game of the second set with an elegant backhand overhead smash.

Having tasted one possible career ending already, Murray said he was not going to be finicky about an eventual finale. For now, he plans on playing at Wimbledon with Pierre-Hugues Herbert — a Frenchman who has won all four Grand Slam doubles events with Nicolas Mahut — and mixed doubles with a female partner yet to be decided. He then has his eye on a singles comeback later down the road.

“It’s not about stopping at one place or a special place, really, for me,” he said. “It will be when I’m not able to do it physically anymore, and I’ll know that now.

“I was at that point in Australia, and I’m sure I’ll get there. And hopefully it’s a few years away, but we’ll see.”

He smiled broadly again on that optimistic note, then rose effortlessly from his seat behind the podium, with no sign of the hobble he’d had in recent years.

Murray’s springy return was a happy ending to a sour day in men’s tennis: After slipping late during his first round win here Wednesday, Juan Martin del Potro announced that he had fractured his right patella, an injury which had previously kept him off tour for most of the last year, and that he would need surgery to repair it.

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