An Grand Slam champion, one of the great players of this era, battles back from the brink of retirement and major physical setbacks to challenge the best players in the world once more in the face of widespread — and justified — skepticism.
It is the dominant narrative of the first week of the 2022 U.S. Open, with Serena Williams defying the dual tolls of time and deterioration to bulldoze her way into the third round.
But she isn’t the only one.
Andy Murray is once again becoming the player no one really wants to face. Ten years ago, he became the first man from Briton to win a Grand Slam singles championship since Fred Perry in 1936. Three years ago, he said he was flirting with retirement because the pain in his hip was so severe he struggled with simple tasks like putting on his shoes and socks.
Murray is unseeded, has just one full human hip, and despite a desperate desire to reach the top 30 ahead of the U.S. Open, he endured a poor-to-middling summer on North America’s hard courts. He is 35 years old but seems to age several months each time he takes the court, judging by the furrowed brow and generally dour expression he usually wears from the moment he strikes the first ball. That’s to say nothing of the cranky dialogue he has with himself through nearly every game.
All of this while he is generally pleased with his recent progress in this late-in-tennis-life attempt to recapture the magic that once made him the world’s top-ranked player during the meat of the careers of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, someone he has known and played against since they were top teenage juniors in Europe still years away from needing to shave.
“My movement around the court is good right now,” Murray said after beating Emilio Nava, the 20-year-old American qualifier, in four sets Wednesday. “I feel like it’s not that easy for guys to hit winners past me, and I’m defending in the corners much better than I was 12 months ago here.”
Even this version of Murray — the one who has been hovering around 50th in the world rankings for several months and who was outside the top 100 as recently as January — was a heavy favorite in that match. The win earned him a spot in the third round of the U.S. Open for the first time in six years.
His first-round win over Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina, the 24th seed, was far less certain, given his recent form. It ended up being his first straight-sets win in a Grand Slam tournament in five years.
The efforts have earned Murray a showdown Friday with Matteo Berrettini of Italy, the 13th seed, a finalist at Wimbledon last year with a hammer-like serve and forehand. Murray is very familiar with both shots. He and Berrettini often practice together, including a testosterone-fueled set two weeks ago as they prepared for this tournament. Not that it matters, but Berrettini said they were all even at 5-5 and played a tiebreaker, which he won, because other players had reserved the court and were waiting. (Yes, this happens to the pros, as well.)
“I always look for players that have a strong energy, that really want to practice hard, because that’s what I like to do,” Berrettini said. “He’s one of those.”
Berrettini, 26, is the sort of younger player at the top of his powers that Murray has rarely been able to get past during his five-year journey through debilitating pain and rehabilitation from two hip surgeries, the second a major procedure to resurface the top of the thigh bone and replace the hip socket and cartilage with a metal shell.
Just when Murray seems on the cusp of the breakthrough he has sought long after many players with his résumé would have packed it in, some young buck gets on him, often in the early round of a tournament. With a ranking as low as his, the protection of a high seeding remains elusive.
The losses create a dispiriting cycle. Without matches and wins, he can’t improve his ranking, currently No. 51. And without a higher ranking, he has to leave his fate up to the luck of the draw. If it doesn’t go his way and he loses a hard-fought early match to a big-time opponent, his ranking does not improve, which often leads to more draws with opponents who have proved too tough.
There would seem to be every reason to not deal with the headaches and frustrations that come with being an aging, formerly sublime professional. For so long, Murray’s creativity, touch and ability to spin the ball every which way, combined with his blazing speed, power, and never-give-up defense, made for can’t-miss tennis.
He has earned nearly $63 million in prize money, plus tens of millions more in sponsorships. Prince Charles knighted him in 2019. In Britain, he’s basically a Beatle. He has four children. It eats at him that he is saddling his wife, Kim Sears, with the bulk of the responsibility of caring for the children while he trots across the globe chasing what he once had, especially when he’s winning only a little more than 60 percent of his matches.
He is also not the type to live in denial.
“At times this year I have, you know, not felt amazing in terms of where my game has been at,” he said Wednesday.
But his body is where he wants it to be now. Recovery, even from the toughest matches, is no longer an issue and he does not think about his hip much. And then he gives a top player all he can handle, and the thing he wants feels not so far away.
Why might Friday be different?
For starters, he has brought Ivan Lendl the eight-time Grand Slam champion of the 1980s back into his coaching ranks. Lendl was there when Murray was at his best. He preaches a simple brand of tennis, pushing Murray to unleash his power and finish points when the opportunity presents itself instead of complicating matters with trickery and deception. Don’t think — just hit.
Also, Berrettini has had a hard-luck year. Hand surgery cost him the clay court season. He won two tournaments ahead of Wimbledon and looked ready for a deep run but tested positive for the coronavirus on the eve of the tournament. He lost his opening matches in his two U.S. Open tuneup tournaments.
If Murray can handle Berrettini’s power and get the rally onto his backhand, he should have good reason for hope; the big Italian is the only remaining truly scary foe in his quarter of the draw left.
Surely Murray knows that as well as anyone.