NEW YORK -- Heavy groundstrokes from Fernando Verdasco were rocking Andy Murray at 30-all in the crucial 4-all game of the first set in their second-round US Open match on Wednesday. But somehow, Murray's desperate defense enabled him to turn the tables in the blink of an eye, and the two men ended up at point-blank range on either side of the net.
Verdasco fired a pass, Murray sidestepped and flicked a volley off his hip. Verdasco plucked it out of the air, but Murray read his mind and swiped at the return with his forehand, returning it down the line. Caught off balance, Verdasco, a lefty, pronged it well beyond the baseline.
Murray whirled toward the baseline, throwing a fist and hollering, rousing the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd from its heat-induced daze. As the cheers cascaded, it must have felt just like old times for the 31-year-old Scot, who revels in that kind of "gotcha" tennis.
There were other signs of vintage Murray as the sets rolled on: He is still a putterer and a mutterer. He narrates his own progress with gestures, like a person speaking sign language to himself. He complains about customers who take too long finding seats and the flashbulbs, and he talks to the palm of his hand. He shoots glowering looks at the team sitting on its collective hands in his player-guest box.
But the man who stripped Novak Djokovic of his No. 1 ranking in the fall of 2016 is no longer winning tennis matches. His comeback from January hip surgery is more a tale of frustration than resurgence, and it continued Wednesday with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 loss against the 34-year-old veteran Verdasco.
Is it time for Murray to panic yet?
"I think some of the tennis I played today was some of the best I've played since I had the [hip] surgery, or since I came back," Murray said afterward. "But there were also periods in the match, especially in the first set, where I really didn't play particularly well. I hit a lot of mistakes when I was up in that set."
Murray's comeback has taken on a striking resemblance to many of the matches that contributed to his injury woes. Even at his peak, Murray found a way to overcomplicate things, striving to outfox opponents rather than simply go through them and win. He turned seemingly routine matches into grueling knock-down, drag-out affairs. He had a habit of losing focus and retreating into a funk that led to sloppy play. He always made life more difficult for himself on the court than it needed to be, and now it's more difficult than ever for some reasons beyond his control.
Those behaviors also made Murray a compelling player, and the brooding mind behind them is fascinating. His news conferences have produced volumes of self-analysis and honest appraisals of his situation, some of it subversive.
"I think there's for sure doubts about that [a full comeback], because you just don't know," Murray said. "I mean, when I got the injury, I was ranked No. 1 in the world. Twelve months later, things completely changed.
"You just don't know exactly what's around the corner. If things keep going smoothly, physically I continue to improve, I believe that I will get back to competing for the biggest competitions because there's no reason why I couldn't. But you don't know. You don't know."
It's an honest answer, and a slightly ominous one. Murray is the kind of person who can get lost in his own mind. It's impossible to overstate the role of confidence in tennis, and that's something Murray worked long and hard to finally achieve. He's not just the junior member of the Big Four, he was the last of them to mature and feel he was on an equal footing with them. But the ground has shifted under his feet.
Verdasco has a deadly forehand and a massive serve. At 6-foot-2, he has grown more barrel-chested with age, and he was able to bring a level of firepower that Murray's vaunted defense was hard put to match. While conceding that only Murray really knows how much, if any, pain he feels, Verdasco detected signs of damage in Murray's game and attitude.
"What you can see [from] outside [is when] moving to the forehand, he has more, I think pain, or he kind of maybe [is] scared of the hip," Verdasco said. "Like recovering from the forehand. You see some things.
"He's not with the same confidence than when he was top four. But that's normal. It has been a long time out of the tour, more than a year without playing a Grand Slam."
Murray came into this tournament feeling fit and ready. True, he wept after winning a third-round match in early August in Washington, D.C., but that meltdown suggested the streak had helped him off-load a lot of anxiety and he was ready to get back to business on his preferred hard courts. But Murray lost two of the only three matches he's played since then.
"It's still quite early in this process for me," he said. "I did all right. I chased balls down right to the end of the match. I wasn't giving up on points. It wasn't the most comfortable I felt on a tennis court [due to the heat]. I got through it and fought right to the end."
Just like old times. Almost.