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Andy Murray’s burning ambition has brought him back from brink | Kevin Mitchell


Andy Murray struggles to recall the moment in January in Melbourne when he admitted he might be about to play his last tournament. As he gripped his aching hip, his response to the inevitable question dripped with resignation.

“Yeah, I think there’s a chance of that,” he said, dabbing at tears on his cheek on the eve of the Australian Open. Thereafter there were long pauses, awkward silences. Few present could remember a tougher moment in our dealings with one of the game’s most complex and emotional characters.

Murray played one match in Melbourne, losing magnificently to Roberto Bautista Agut in five sets. And some of us feared this was it, the end of the crazy adventure we had shared for more than a decade.

What happened next might have been written in Hollywood. As his first professional Tour coach, Mark Petchey, got them both through a faltering TV courtside interview, tributes went up on the big screens around the court from Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and many others.

“How much will you miss all that?” Petchey asked him. Murray kept the door ajar. “That’s something that I’m sure when we finish, when we finish playing, we’ll remain friends.” This was a farewell, unrequested but excruciatingly public. The tournament had all but retired him. Murray had no say in it. He was moved, certainly, but confused. He had momentarily lost control of his destiny.

He smiles now looking back on the experience and says he cannot remember his answer to the Guardian’s question about his future that might have inspired the orchestrated tributes.

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“I didn’t think I had said that,” he says, before heading home to Surrey to pack for his 14th visit to Melbourne, where he has reached the final five times, losing four times to Djokovic and once to Federer. It is Murray’s place of suffering and self-examination.

“I don’t know what I had said, really,” he says. “I was so emotional. I didn’t think I had said I’m retiring. I think I said I would like to get to Wimbledon to stop. And, at the time, that was my plan. I didn’t want to play any longer than that because I couldn’t do it any more.

“And then the video. I can’t really remember what exactly was in it. I think Mark Petchey … he did the interview with me and it was a tough, tricky moment for him as well. That match for me … I said as well to my team and my family afterwards: ‘If that is the end, that is fine.’

“It would have been an amazing way to finish. Brilliant atmosphere, packed crowd, epic match, almost came back. And it was like: ‘That is fine, if I had had to finish there, I would have been OK with it.”

Except it was not the end. The desire and ambition that had driven Murray since he was five still burned inside him. It did not die on the court against Bautista Agut. Or even on the operating table.

Murray had a second hip surgery. He did his rehab. He came back. He won a tournament for the first time in two-and-a-half years, in Antwerp. So here he is on the plane again, still ambitious, showing flashes of his brilliant best, but still not entirely comfortable. He cancelled his customary Miami training block to spend Christmas with his young family, and will wave them goodbye on Friday.

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When Murray arrives in Sydney to prepare for the ATP Cup, which begins on 3 January and is a high-grade warm-up for the Australian Open, starting on 20 January, there will be no thoughts of the finishing line.

Every match now is to be embraced and enjoyed. If he wins, fine. If he doesn’t, there will be another one next week. Tennis Australia, which tried to be kind a year ago, will extend him a wildcard entry, and we will get back on the Murray merry-go-round.

In an altogether gruesome scene in Resurfacing – a documentary more suitable for students of Guys hospital than of tennis – a surgeon hammers a metal shaft into Murray’s right thigh bone to stabilise the hip that has made his life a misery for most of his career. It is the single most dramatic image of the film of his life. This is the sacrifice he made – just to play tennis.

“At times during the whole period, I didn’t appreciate how difficult it was for everyone else around me. I was just thinking: ‘Well, they don’t have the pain in their hip, I am the one dealing with this, you don’t know what it is like.’

“But you see it in the film and, when I look back and reflect on it, there were lots of periods where my team were just as invested in it as I was, and putting just as much work and effort into it as I was. They were obviously sad for me as well.”

Yet Murray remains a ragbag of ambiguities and concedes he has not always been honest about his fitness (although he is hardly alone there).

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“It was really hard because, up until that point, when I had been asked, my closest family and friends knew, and my team knew I was really struggling.

“But, as a professional athlete, when you turn up at tournaments and you get asked by the media and fellow coaches etcetera how you are doing and how are your hips doing, I am not going to say: ‘Oh my hip feels terrible. I can’t run to my forehand and I can’t serve.’ I might have to play them the next day.

“So, you are always putting on a bit of a front and a brave face: ‘I am doing a little bit better, the hip is doing good.’ But that wasn’t actually the case.

“And then in Australia was the first time I had opened up to everyone and said how much I had been struggling and how I was feeling. That was a really important moment for me because the support from the tennis community was amazing and helped a lot in that period. And I needed it.”



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