Andy Murray has the mettle, but does he have the time to return to greatness?
Much of the conversation about Andy Murray in recent weeks revolved around his metal hip. The better subject might have been the more familiar one: Murray's heart.
Murray, off the tour as a singles player for six months following a last-ditch effort to save his career via hip resurfacing surgery, won the title at Antwerp last week after playing just 16 ATP matches in his comeback. In the blink of an eye, the first man to win an ATP match with a metal hip became the first such person to win a tournament (Murray's 46th singles title). But it was the way Murray won -- surviving a furious, grueling battle with fellow Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka -- that stands out.
It seemed like old times again, watching the former No. 1 grimacing, grinding, digging balls out of corners and berating himself in the megaphone of his fist. Murray clawed his way back from desperate straits to finally master a fellow elite, one who had taken considerably longer to work his own way back from recent surgery, on a knee.
Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN analyst, said in an interview, "It's been cool to watch. We all know Andy has a big heart and an incredible work ethic."
John Lloyd, the British player who was runner-up at the Australian Open in 1977, now provides commentary for the BBC. He told ESPN.com, "I didn't expect this. I didn't think before Antwerp that Andy would be a threat again, but the heart and mind are amazing things. He sees himself as a contender now, so I do, too."
The alacrity of Murray's rebound from a career-threatening condition casts the upcoming year in a different light. It raises the prospect of a late-career resurgence of the kind produced by Roger Federer starting in 2017. Murray clearly has the required heart, but does he have enough time?
Murray is playing, feeling and talking like a man experiencing comfort for the first time after a long, painful slog across a desert of pain. It's liberating. It's motivational jet fuel. Psychologically, the surgery has been a game-changer.
"Right now I feel happy," Murray told The Telegraph newspaper recently. "I'm in a good place, I have no issues with my hip and I'm able to do what I have always done. Maybe not quite to the level as what I did in my mid-20s, but I'm pretty competitive with most players."
Murray will be 33 in May. Federer was well into his 34th summer when he ditched the second half of his 2016 season to rehab a troublesome knee, rest and reappraise his intentions and prospects. The Swiss icon won the first major he played upon his return, in Australia in 2017. Comparisons are enticing, but they also raise red flags. McEnroe sounds a note of caution.
"It would be awesome to see him contend as soon as the Australian Open, but it's too early to expect that," he said. "Murray in the top 20? Absolutely. Top 10? It's possible. Top five, that's going to be tough."
In terms of style and mentality, Murray and Federer are completely different animals. Federer, the artist, is also shrewd, the master of a liquid game that always finds the path of least resistance.
"Roger finds the quickest route to ending a point," Lloyd said. "Andy is a one-more-ball-than-you guy."
Even in his prime, Murray specialized in grinding out wins with tireless defense. His penchant for flirting with disaster seemed almost masochistic as he transformed potentially easy victories into arduous struggles full of momentum swings.
"Roger is probably the most talented player of all time," McEnroe said, "so this isn't a knock on Andy. But I don't see Andy playing differently than he has in the past, the way Roger did in order to lengthen his career. He came back at 100%, behind months of practice, unloading on the ball with nobody watching. Murray was more like, 'Can I actually do this?'"
The youngest member of the Big Four, Murray also plays the most laborious game; his style is the most difficult to maintain in the face of age. "Even Rafa [Nadal] is way more offensive," McEnroe said. "Novak [Djokovic] now takes the ball early, unlike Andy, and he has a more offensive mindset."
Lloyd is more optimistic about Murray's prospects. He said, "He stuttered early in his comeback, but at times in Antwerp he looked like the same old Andy. Best-of-five tennis is different for sure. He may not be ready to challenge a Nadal or Djokovic in his next major, but if he stays healthy he can get there soon."
This isn't the first monumental task faced by Sir Andrew Barron Murray, OBE. As the Scottish native rose in prominence, he came under increasing pressure to become the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years. It was a lot to ask for a number of reasons, not least the nature of grass court tennis. It has generally been the domain of aggressive, explosive stylists, including Federer and Pete Sampras.
By contrast, Murray's game has a DIY flavor. He cobbles things together on the fly. But Murray's heart, his outstanding movement and the advice of supercoach Ivan Lendl helped him develop a game aggressive enough to close the deal at Wimbledon. He thrilled legions of his British compatriots with his Wimbledon win in 2013, then demonstrated that it was no fluke when he won for a second time in 2016.
Later that year, Murray crafted another formidable accomplishment. With Djokovic slumping after his win at the French Open, Murray realized he was close enough to make a run at Djokovic's No. 1 ranking. Following an unexpected quarterfinal loss at the US Open, Murray won a string of 24 consecutive singles matches in five successive tournaments, a streak that brought him face-to-face with Djokovic, with the year-end No. 1 ranking on the line, in the final match of the ATP year. Murray won it 6-3, 6-4.
"These next few years," Murray said after the win, "obviously I want to try and make them the best of my career. Yeah, try and win as much as I can."
The cost of Murray's spectacular run was borne at least in part by his hip. By the middle of 2017, the pain was so excruciating that Murray limped away from Wimbledon following a quarterfinal loss to Sam Querrey and took almost an entire year off. Soon after his return in 2018, the injury flared up again.
"I've been struggling for a long time," Murray said this year at the Australian Open, where he finally gave up trying to play in his compromised state. "I have been in a lot of pain for probably about 20 months now. I have pretty much done everything that I could to try and get my hip feeling better. It hasn't helped loads. It's been tough."
It's difficult to comprehend the toll the injury exacted for about two years in every aspect of Murray's life. He couldn't sit through a dinner with friends. He was unable to play five-a-side pickup games of soccer with the lads, or even bend over to tie his shoes. He dreaded having to walk his beloved dogs.
"I hate it," Murray said, explaining why he finally opted to undergo the risky surgery. "I can't even walk properly. It's so sore and uncomfortable."
Now Murray sees the world through an entirely different lens. He never was one to play with exuberance, but he has rediscovered the fundamental joy and satisfaction of playing tennis. After shedding tears of joy following the win in Antwerp, he said: "I am very fortunate that I have got a second chance to finish on my own terms."
Murray's reworked hip will have to hold up if he's going to evolve into a contender at the Slams again. As for his heart, that part is fine.