These are uncertain times for Andy Murray. Having played very little elite-level tennis over the last three years due to two hip surgeries, the road back to the top is proving to be a long and bumpy one for the three-time Grand Slam champion. And there’s still a feeling that he is only just getting started.
Now ranked No 121 in the world, Murray was supposed to begin his 2021 season in Australia after an encouraging off-season, one which had him thinking he could rise up the rankings again.
“I still feel like I can compete for big events,” he said this week. “I wish I was able to show that in Australia, because I was ready to do that. No question, I was ready to do that.”
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But his trip to Melbourne was called off after a positive Covid-19 test, so instead he started his season with a run to the final of a Challenger event in Biella, Italy, losing to world No 176 Illya Marchenko. He then opted to withdraw from another Challenger to play his first ATP event of the season in Montpellier, where he was beaten in the first round by world No 83 Egor Gerasimov.
The result – a 7-6(8), 6-1 defeat – should not be entirely surprising. Gerasimov won two matches at the Murray River Open earlier this year, took world No 19 Felix Auger-Aliassime to three sets and beat 25th seed Benoit Paire at the Australian Open. He’s got far more high-level match practice under his belt this year than Murray.
But where do the results of the few weeks leave Murray?
The 33-year-old looked competitive in a 71-minute opening set against Gerasimov and had a set point in the tie-break. If Murray had taken it perhaps the result would have been different, even if the one-sided nature of the second set may suggest otherwise. Murray’s energy levels appeared to be dipping as the contest wore on, and it’s clear that he still needs more court time to build up his fitness.
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But can he get that at ATP events with his current ranking? He has taken a wildcard for the ATP 500 in Rotterdam next week which looks as though it will feature a very strong field, including six of the top 10 players in the world. Should Murray get a difficult first-round match then his week could again be over quickly.
Turning to the Challenger Tour again might be an option, or looking for some doubles action. A Murray-Murray partnership may have to wait as Jamie has reunited with Bruno Soares, but Andy enjoyed success last time he tried out doubles in 2019, winning Queen’s with Feliciano Lopez. He said at the time it was part of his “baby steps” to recovery after hip surgery, and he also played doubles and mixed doubles at Wimbledon that summer before making his singles comeback in the US.
For now, Murray seems focused on a singles return. It was positive to hear him say that he didn’t “feel pain” during his run to the final at the Challenger in Biella, when he played five matches over six days. And he also seems buoyed by his performances on the practice courts.
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“I’ve played in practice with lots of top players and I know how I’m getting on against them. If I was getting smoked when I was practising and playing with guys, I wouldn’t keep going through it.
“But I know the level that I’m playing at. I’ve been playing and practising with guys who are between 20 and 60, 70 in the world and I’m doing absolutely fine, and that’s off the back of hardly playing any matches in the past couple of years.
“Let’s see whether I can compete with them. I’m doing it each week now. I’m going to get the chance to compete against them, so let’s see.”
The challenge remains for Murray to get more top-level matches under his belt. He may soon find himself having to play more to get into tournaments if he doesn’t get wildcards, as he has done for Montpellier and Rotterdam, with his lowly ranking meaning he will need to go through qualifying.
That in itself may not be a bad thing, but Murray knows the questions about whether he will get back to the top of the game will keep on coming.
“Can I still do it? We’ll find out.”
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