It had been 210 days since Andy Murray stood on one side of the court alone, to fight for himself, to do the job alone. To figure things out and plan things all by himself. Since the last time Murray played a singles match, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal extended their grand slam tallies, Roger Federer notched 100 wins at Wimbledon and extended his finals record at the All England Club, his friend Nick Kyrgios had thrown some chairs, picked a few feuds and won two ATP 500 titles.
In the meantime, Murray himself had undergone a second hip operation, the plans of pulling off a retirement party at Wimbledon were shelved and returned to the doubles field with Feliciano Lopez, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, brother Jamie and mixed with Serena Williams.
Following doubles activity at Queen's, Wimbledon and Citi Open in Washington, it remained unclear if Murray would or could return to the singles field. The answer arrived last week. He announced Cincinnati would be a start. Baby steps in the positive approach towards becoming competitive once again. Competitive for titles " just the way Andy would like it.
First opponent: Richard Gasquet. Murray held an 8-3 head-to-head record but that was Murray of pre bionic hip Andy. This one was still finding feet back on the tennis court, still getting that confidence level back. To make it trickier, Gasquet, a veteran of the sport, is not the easiest to play with variety of weapons, slider groundstrokes, excellent control of the grip and tenacious whip on the forehand.
The Scot walked on to the court for the first time in seven months with a mobile phone in hand. He captured the scenes of his much-awaited return. The eventual outcome was a 4-6, 4-6 loss and he subsequently announced he wasn't going to play the US Open " opting against using his protective ranking or taking up a wildcard.The eventual scoreline is immaterial here and the result too, to some extent (unless you're Murray, of course). What is important is how the Briton felt and fared during the 96 minutes spent on court.
Murray was broken thrice, won 12 points fewer than Gasquet " equivalent to three games, even as both players had a miserable day with the serve. Murray was broken in the very first game and trailed 0-2 before reeling off three straight games. The Frenchman hit right back with three continuous games of his own to take the break advantage. After four straight service games where he faced break points in each, Murray held to love to force the hand on Gasquet. And the Frenchman had no trouble holding to love for his eighth straight point on serve.
In the second set, Murray was broken immediately once again before both players maintained their composure on serve. Gasquet needed to play out a marathon fourth game " saving a break point " before ensuring his lead. That is how things stayed until the end when Murray sent a service return wide with Gasquet setting up a clash against Dominic Thiem.
Good to 'Gram! 📸
" Tennis TV (@TennisTV) August 12, 2019
Gasquet's ability to read the opponent and attack their weaknesses was on full display in the first set. Someone who would race down most shots, Murray had trouble picking up multiple drop shots by Gasquet and then came two more in the same game " Murray tried for one but didn't even bother for the second.
"I think physically, you know, my legs were a little bit heavy at the end of the match in comparison to maybe what they normally would be if you played a bunch," he said after the loss. "When he drop-shotted, there were a few times I didn't even run to the ball, didn't react to it, and that's nothing to do with my hip. That's just me not running for a ball, which I did do that better at the end of the match. I reacted and got to a few and won points."
The troubles existed not just when moving forward but even on the sides. Murray's defensive play had been the hallmark of his tennis " just running down balls all around, getting to everything and making the opponent play one more ball each time. It wasn't there to see for much of Monday evening. Gasquet would push the Briton side-to-side and then made it far too much of an angle with some extra kick to the shots. It took Murray until the second set and the fourth game for his first groundstroke winner " and then two more arrived.
Signature muzzah! 🙌
" Tennis TV (@TennisTV) August 12, 2019
"If I got back over the last 18 months, it was really sore doing that and I just wasn't running for them (drop shots) and it was just a bad habit I got into," said the Briton in a tell-all chat after the match where he talked extra on his physical concerns.
"Also on the serve, I made changes. I couldn't serve the same, so I had to change the technique on the serve because I couldn't push up as much as before. Now I can serve better and I can serve harder, which is obviously a positive."
"Even though I didn't realise I was compensating, there was a lot of things I couldn't do properly and I need to work hard physically to get myself back into a position to win matches like this.
"The thing is, I haven't played many matches for a long time. It's not like I just haven't played for seven months. I haven't played before then either. It's going to take time and it's not going to come back in one week or one tournament. To get back to where I want to get to will take a lot of time and a lot more work."
With every drop shot that went unpicked, with every side-to-side exchange that went unanswered, with every shot missed, Murray, in his typical fashion, would berate him and look at his box in frustration. He would mumble to himself " as he used to " but the situation has changed. Earlier it was to egg himself on, now it's a new Murray. Is it an "improved" Murray? Only time will tell. But for now, the 32-year-old has to be more positive with each match he plays " even if it all leads to not the same levels of success as the past.