There were times over the last couple years where it didn’t look at all certain whether Andy Murray was going to have any comeback to speak of. Nagging injuries kept him off court, and though some of his matches were high quality, the inability to string together victories and even appearances made it seem unlikely that he would ever rise to anywhere near his former level. But after consistent tournament attendance and some good victories, the last six months have demonstrated that 2022 may be the year that Murray reascends into the Top 100, or even higher.
Andy Murray Comeback in 2022
Up and Down, Down and Up
When Murray beat Stan Wawrinka for the Antwerp title in 2019, he wept, demonstrating how much tennis–and another shot at it–meant to him. Undoubtedly some of those tears were drawn from the frustration of his time playing in pain with an ailing hip, and from the difficulties of post-surgery recovery, in addition to his happiness at being able to compete again. But while it looked like the beginning of a metal-hipped return to form, it was actually the calm before the storm, a storm of frequent small setbacks that kept Murray off court for much of the following season.
The 2021 season, however, held better in store for him than the start-and-stop 2020. Though unable to win a tournament, he was able to stay on court and string together practices and competitive matches, getting the all-important game-speed experience needed to stay sharp. Though inconsistent, 2021 saw Murray place victories over Alexander Zverev, Hubert Hurkacz, Jannik Sinner, Nikoloz Basilashvili, Ugo Humbert, and Carlos Alcaraz, plus a marathon victory over Frances Tiafoe that was the longest three-set match of his career. It also brought the thrilling five-set loss to Tsitsipas in the US Open, a match that gave us perhaps the best taste of what Murray is still capable of. The other high-level wins demonstrate that it wasn’t a fluke, and the length demonstrates that there is still a lot of endurance to go with the high-level skill. The question that remains is: can that endurance stretch over the course of a tournament?
Australian Open Opportunity
This year’s Australian Open may answer that question immediately, with Murray getting a wild card draw against the very same Basilashvili that he just defeated in Sydney. Murray is 2-0 in the matchup this last year, but Basilashvili pushes Murray very hard, given the physical nature of the Georgian’s hitting. As a pure matchup (irrespective of its ramifications on energy levels for the rest of the tournament), Murray surely likes it. His size, strength, and defensive capabilities match up well against Basilashvili’s relentless power-hitting. And though a hard-hitter, Basilashvili does not probe the corners for winners in an aggressive manner quite the same way as a Djokovic or a Nadal or a Rublev. The trick is dealing with the power, from forehand and backhand, stroke after stroke, game after game. Murray is suited for that, as his two recent victories testify.
Terms are different for a best-of-five, of course, but we got an initial picture of that back in August, in the match against Tsitsipas. But as we’ve said, the question hasn’t been single-match longevity so much as how he will fare over the course of a tournament. He was helped in that regard in Sydney, following his difficult match against Basilashvili, when David Goffin retired after only one set because of knee issues. Murray had won the set 6-2, a good sign of freshness from the match before.
He then went three sets with a tiebreak against another hard-hitter in Reilly Opelka, staying the course after a first set loss to reach his first final in over two years. The subsequent match against Karatsev didn’t go so well, however, and in a straight-sets defeat Murray again failed to follow up a win against a quality opponent with another one. But perhaps the best sign for fans was how much the finals appearance meant to Murray, who knows his body and its capabilities better than anyone, and who said in his press conference after beating Opelka that he was already pleased with how far he’d made it. He’d been predicting a deep tournament run, and the accomplishment justified his belief in his body. That bodes well for the new season.
Signs of Life
In years past, each tournament was an end in itself, another trophy to add to the collection. This year, each tournament is an indication, a sign of where Murray is in his comeback, and what the rest of the season might hold for him. For a while, the signs were not good; they told of pain and frustrations and a lack of the recovery that Murray and his fans had hoped for. This last season, however, and the very beginning of 2022, are saying something different. Perhaps Murray has learned how to play within his post-surgery means, or maybe he just had some unlucky breaks at first. Whatever the case, he has been on-court consistently, and has showed more than flashes of his old self. He has demonstrated the skill to compete with top players, and hopefully that skill will provide the foundation for a deeper run in a Slam than we’ve seen in a while, to give us a picture of where Murray’s endurance is at, and a sign that 2022 could be the year of his return to form.
Main Photo from Getty.