In recent southern summers, Andy Murray has arrived determined to end his run of gallant seconds at the n Open, a tournament where he has managed to be on the wrong side of five finals.
This time, his goals are far more modest. The man who was No.1 in the world up until last August simply wants to get back on the court as he continues to spar with a hip injury that has sidelined him since Wimbledon.
On Sunday, Murray confirmed his long-awaited return to the ATP Tour would take place at the Brisbane International, with the 30-year-old triple Grand Slam winner to take the court in the second round on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Now ranked 16, the Scot has endured the longest injury lay-off of his professional career but feels he is making steady progress. A 75-minute practice with Argentine world No.68 Federico Delbonis included more hits than misses, he said, but top-level matches will be far more instructive.
“I feel like I’m getting better. You need to play matches. You need to play against the best players to gain confidence in the way your body and hip is feeling. My hip feels way better than it did at Wimbledon and way better than it did at the US Open, which is good,” Murray said.
???”I felt OK today [Sunday] actually, better than I did in the [exhibition] match in Abu Dhabi. I’m going to get better with each day I practise with better players.
“I feel fresh, certainly mentally. I don’t feel like there are many miles in my legs at all, which wasn’t the case at the beginning of 2017. Most days I was quite sore all over. Right now, the hip is the only thing that is any concern. The rest of the body feels really good.”
The tour can be a draining grind for even those at the pointy end of the rankings, which is why Murray has been pleasantly surprised in how much he’s missed the sport. Staring at the wall in a gym can do that to an athlete, although it’s not as if he returns with delusions of immediate grandeur.
For a man accustomed to being one of the Big Four of the men’s tour, Murray appears to be taking his current predicament in a surprisingly good spirits. He’s not sure whether he will be able to scale his former heights and if that’s the case, so be it.
“My expectations aren’t massively high just now, because I’ve not played for such a long time. Also, I just want to enjoy playing again. I really missed it the last six months or so, you kind of re-evaluate what’s important to you,” Murray said.
“I want to play tennis… I don’t mind if it’s 30 in the world level. I’d love it to be No.1 of the world level. But I just want to play. When that’s taken away from you, you realise how important it is. I’m just hoping I can get back to a level where I can be competitive. If I don’t [play my best tennis] I’m OK with that, I just want to keep playing.
“On a day-to-day basis it’s difficulty to tell what my level is. Having such high expectations for quite a long time, when I have a few bad days, I feel like I’m playing poorly but it might be good enough to beat top 30, top 40 in the world. It’s difficult to tell.”
What he knows for certain is that he can’t keep punishing his body at the current pace, nor has he been surprised by the injuries to fellow top-liners Rafael Nadal (knee), who was a late withdrawal in Brisbane, and Novak Djokovic (elbow), who may miss the first slam of the year.
“I’ll make some changes to my schedule this year. I’ll play less than I have in the past to give my body time to rest and recover. I wouldn’t say I’ve overplayed but just the way the schedule is, there’s not loads of breaks. I want to be healthy and back on the court.
“I think most players probably love playing tennis, enjoy it, realise how lucky you are to do it as a job. So I’d want to play as long as I could. To physically do that, most players would feel the same way, giving yourself breaks, especially as you start to get older, I think is very important and something that I’ll be looking to do for however long I keep playing.”