Andy Murray has been to hell and back this year. At the Australian Open, the Scot tearfully announced his retirement at age 31, due to hip pain so severe it interfered with his daily life. A rare hip resurfacing surgery left the rest of his career in question. At the time of that announcement, Murray’s modest target had been to eke out one last Wimbledon. That’s where his head was at in January. This week, he beat the No. 13 player in men’s tennis. Sometimes the universe actually does spit out an outcome that isn’t the worst one possible.
There was an eight-month buildup to this welcome surprise. Murray underwent surgery on January 28, then moved onto rehabilitation. The three-time major winner returned to the tour in careful phases: In June he tested his hip with doubles, which requires less movement, and in August he returned to singles, which has a rougher learning curve. His hard-court summer consisted of two unremarkable first-round losses to solid opponents.
While the rest of tennis’s greats were at the U.S. Open, Murray was busy lining up his first two post-surgery wins in singles at a low-key Challenger in Mallorca, eventually losing to the world No. 240. He was still waiting for his first tour-level win. At the end of September, in Zhuhai, he finally got it by dispatching then-world No. 69 Tennys Sandgren. He lost the next round to world No. 31 Alex de Minaur, though it was encouraging to see Murray still looking spry and moving well two and a half hours into a slog with one of the tour’s fastest and most consistent players. “Last week was a really big step for me in terms of how I felt and how I played in the matches,” he said, feeling encouraged by his tests. “Although I lost in the second round, I felt like I was playing tour-level tennis. I was competitive.” And, notably, he said the hip was still pain-free.
If last week marked Murray’s return to normalcy, this week hinted at a possible return to excellence. On Monday at the China Open, Murray took on his first-round opponent, world No. 13 Matteo Berrettini, the 23-year-old who just cut his way to a U.S. Open semifinal with his booming serve and forehand. Confronted with the highest-ranked opponent since his return to tour, Murray survived, if barely, 7-6(2), 7-6(7). “In terms of the way that I’m moving now, in comparison to a couple of months ago, just my level of confidence in that is much, much higher than what it was a few months ago,” he said after the win, and it’s incredible movement that defines his brand of tennis. Trust Andy, but the eye test can also verify that this week’s Murray is the genuine article.
To take one example, there is nothing more canonically Andy Murray than an absurd defensive play involving two audible, mid-sprint grunts. There’s the same old baseline coverage, and the same backhand pass struck cleanly at a full stretch, confounding Berrettini.
Murray has looked comfortable—and just plain fast—laterally, and when venturing to net, his north-south movement also bodes well. Here he hits a middling slice approach and follows it to the net. But watch his feet as he picks up that awkward low volley on the sidelines, then recovers to the center of the court, only to circle right back again to pick the overhead out of the sky. This is the kind of subtle, change-of-direction footwork that allows a player to improvise effectively in the frontcourt, and it appears to be back to normal.
Murray followed up the encouraging win over Berrettini with a three-set defeat of world No. 69 Cameron Norrie on Tuesday, and he was scurrying all over the court again. The anticipation and retrieval of a seemingly hopeless overhead smash, in particular, is an old staple:
Murray, who won this title in Beijing in 2016, is back up to a 3-3 record in tour-level matches since his operation. He’s also now back in the quarterfinal of an ATP tournament, a feat he hasn’t accomplished in a year. For much of that year, most observers, including Murray himself, doubted he’d ever play tennis like this again.