NEW YORK — Away from the spotlight of the box office night matches, Andy Murray is greeted with reverence and a hint of nostalgia whenever his name is read out. But this isn’t a farewell tour for the 2012 US Open winner.
With a metal hip and near misses with retirement in the rearview mirror, Murray’s body and mind have reached rare synergy leading into this year’s competition. The three-time Grand Slam winner is into the third round of a Grand Slam away from Wimbledon for the first time since 2017.
“My movement around the court is good right now,” Murray said after defeating Emilio Nava in the second round on 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.
“I’m not having to worry about, you know, the next day waking up with something that is going to really impact me or hamper my tennis.”
The fab four of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray won every Grand Slam between 2010 and 2013 (their record since the French Open in 2005 is ridiculous, winning all but seven of the Slams to date).
Despite the control they have over their craft, injuries and age interrupt grand plans — Nadal’s hamartia is his ankle, Federer is battling back from knee surgery, and Djokovic’s bid at overtaking Nadal’s 23 Slams has been hampered by his COVID-19 vaccination stance. Back in late 2017 and 2018 it looked as though Murray’s chronic hip problems would be unsurmountable. At the 2019 Australian Open, a retirement montage was played in his honor on Rod Laver Arena.
That year, he had a hip resurfacing procedure with the goal of being able to walk up the stairs and play with his children without pain. Instead, it has prolonged his career.
There have been times watching him when he resembled tennis’ reluctant version of “The Fighting Temeraire” — another symbol of an era ending. He has spoken openly about his tennis mortality. After his third-round defeat to Denis Shapovalov at Wimbledon 2021 he picked through whether it was worth fighting on. “Is all of that training and everything that you’re doing in the gym, unless you’re able to like practice and improve your game and get a run of tournaments, like, is it worth all of the work that you’re doing?” he said at the time.
But the hip has held up, and this year he has managed consistent practice. That’s not to say there haven’t been the usual bumps and scrapes. He had an ab strain in the run-up to Wimbledon. He has had issues with cramping here in the U.S., and after clear sweat tests and scans to eliminate any cause there, it’s been down to him and his team to tweak his hydration and nutrition. So alongside facing the No. 24 seed Francisco Cerundolo in the first round, and then the promising youngster Nava in the second round, he has had to manage maintaining an intake of 1.5 liters of sports drink every 40 minutes in Flushing Meadows.
What surprised Cerundolo was Murray’s ability to read the game. While he might be a little slower between points, Murray’s return game was on point.
“I don’t read every single shot, but once you start to play more matches, [you] get a bit more comfortable with your movement, which I do feel like now I’m moving a lot better than I was at this time last year,” Murray said after that second-round win over Nava. “I’ve got more matches under my belt, so I’m starting to see things a little bit easier on the match court, that, you know, when you combine the two, it makes quite a big difference to my movement.”
There are still flashes of the Murray who won three Grand Slams (2012 US Open, 2013 and 2016 Wimbledon), two Olympic men’s singles gold medals in 2012 and 2016, and reached No. 1 in the world in 2016. There’s Ivan Lendl back as his coach, who was in his corner for all that success. “He’s very clear on the way that I need to play and go about matches if I want to get back up to the top of the game again,” Murray said of Lendl this week.
And Murray still occasionally launches frustration in the direction of his team whenever he misfires. Against Nava, he was growing increasingly angry at languid spectators trying to find their seats and interrupting play. He even looked exasperated with the sun. But this is all part of what makes him Murray — the man who’s angry one minute, fist-clenched chest-thumping in celebration the next, and sometimes crying.
Back in 2012 when Murray won the US Open, his postmatch news conference was gate-crashed by Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Sean Connery to crown Britain’s new sports star. A decade on with a new hip, Murray is still here, hustling his way through the tournament, seeing off the young pretenders. He still has goals in the sport: He wants to win four more tournaments as a pro to reach the 50 mark and is 89 tour matches off his target of 800. And in the process, he’s like to improve his ranking so he’s a seed for tournaments.
The fire’s still burning in him, and though he’ll be the underdog against Matteo Berrettini on Friday, don’t mistake this for one last jaunt in the sun. Looking back on the earlier part of his career, Murray regrets not enjoying the highs more. But for all the nostalgia and that constant nagging feeling of how much longer he’ll hold up, he’s not in the mood for this to be a glorious encore. Instead, he’s pain-free, and has eyes on a deep run here.
“When he has been on the court, he has done really, really well,” Murray said of Berrettini. “I am expecting it to be really difficult. But if I play well and my returns are on point, then I have a good chance.”