It is a bumpy business being a veteran tennis player with a bionic hip joint. One day you are celebrating a heroic five-set comeback. The next, you are being reminded of the speed, vigour and fearlessness of the next generation.
Thursday night’s meeting with Felix Auger Aliassime proved to be a chastening experience for Andy Murray. Admittedly, he was a step slow – maybe even two steps – as he tried to crank himself up after his first-round feats. But even at his best, he might have struggled to contain the flair and aggression of his 20-year-old opponent – a man tipped to be the next legend of the game.
After Murray’s thumping 6-2, 6-3 6-4 defeat – which occupied only 2 hr 7 min – his interview-room appearance took on extra meaning. Would he be brutally self-critical, as he had been after his similarly one-sided defeat to Milos Raonic nine days earlier? Might he even find himself questioning his future?
In the event, the briefing was surprisingly philosophical. Murray emphasised that his primary concern throughout this American trip had been his hip.
Encouragingly, the metal joint has come through every test.
In tennis terms, however, Murray was less content. The tally of clean winners from Thursday night found him striking only nine – quite possibly a career low for a grand-slam match – to place against Auger Aliassime’s free-flowing 52. As he came to terms with this alarming disparity, he had to remind himself that this is still only the beginning of his third comeback in as many years.
“I feel like I’m back at square one, having not played in slams for a few years,” said Murray, who added that he planned to skip the Rome Masters and only enter the French Open during the rescheduled clay-court season. “I need to build up my body and my physical conditioning so that I have the ability to back up five-set matches. That takes a bit of time, unfortunately.
“In terms of winning grand slams again, that’s going to be extremely difficult to do. It was hard enough when I had two normal hips. So it will be difficult, but I’ll keep trying – like, why not? Why shouldn’t I try my hardest to do that? I might as well shoot for the stars. And if I don’t get there, then that’s all right. But I’m trying my best to get the most out of what my body gives me now.”
Murray’s self-analysis was typically honest and revealing. Moving, even, as he spoke of managing his physical shortcomings like a grand prix driver nursing worn-out tyres around the last few laps. But it did also raise some awkward questions. It is almost unheard of for Murray to suffer a straight-sets defeat in the first week of a major. The last time it happened was at the 2006 Australian Open, when he was 18. How much longer will he be prepared to put up with such indignity?
“Obviously I don’t want to lose in straight sets anywhere, and certainly not in grand slams,” he said on Thursday night. “But all you can do is try to keep improving from where you are. And I’m not in the same position that I was three years ago, when I was in the latter stages of most of the events I was playing. I’m ranked 115, 120 in the world and my game reflects that just now. So I’ll need to get better if I want to move up the rankings and be more competitive.”
Should this process stall, we can expect Murray to press on for one more English summer, then walk away from the game. Yet this would be a hugely pessimistic reading. We need to remember how early this tournament came in his reconditioning process, and that he went through a similarly sticky phase at the same time last year.
Just over 12 months ago, Murray played his first singles matches with the new hip. The low point was a three-set loss to Matteo Viola, the world No 240, at a Challenger event in Majorca. Less than two months later, he was beating Stan Wawrinka in the Antwerp final. So fortunes can change quickly.
Wawrinka is actually a good analogue for what Murray might still hope to achieve. Neither man has been quite the same since their five-set semi-final at the 2017 French Open, which left Murray’s hip in pieces and Wawrinka requiring double knee surgery a few weeks later. But while Wawrinka has not threatened to win another big title since that major operation, he has at least returned to the fringes of the conversation, reaching three quarter-finals from his last four slams.
Such results are good enough to deliver a top-20 ranking, keep pride intact and earn some useful cash. For as long as Murray can cling on to similar aspirations – which hardly seem unreasonable as long as his hip plays ball – there is no reason for him to even think about quitting.