They made 2019 (II): Andy Murray, the ultimate roller-coaster

 - Simon Cambers

EPISODE 2/10. In 10 days, 10 players and 10 stories, here are the tales of a fascinating year.

Andy Murray waving goodbye to the fans at the 2019 Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

EPISODE 2/10. From the verge of retirement, Andy Murray is back, against all the odds

A year can be a long time for any sportsman or woman but surely few can have experienced the kind of roller-coaster that Andy Murray has been through over the past 12 months.

From the depths of despair in January when it seemed likely that his career was over; to a serious operation on his right hip, to the pain of rehab and the stress it put on his family, and then to his comeback and finally, to his joyous return to the tournament winner again, he has been through the ringer and come out unscathed.

As the 32-year-old works on his game, builds his fitness and cements his plans for 2020, the events of January seem almost like they are from an alternate universe.

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The tears began to flow

It all began just before lunchtime on the Friday before the Australian Open, when Murray, having scheduled his pre-tournament press conference for 11am, was asked what was intended as a simple, gentle opening question. “How are you?” In response, Murray said: “Yeah, not great.” The tears began to flow and he needed a short break in a nearby room before he was able to continue.

Having been in pain for the best part of two years, Murray seemed to have reached an end-point and suggested he might hang up his rackets after Wimbledon, if he was able to make it that far.

The other possibility, he said, was to have a hip resurfacing operation that would stop the pain but would leave him unsure if he would ever be able to play again.

It was an emotional press conference throughout. Watching a man who had reached such highs in his career – three Grand Slam titles, two Olympic gold medals in singles, one Davis Cup crown, the world No 1 ranking and a stack of other tournament wins – clearly in pain, physical and emotional, was hard to do.

Despite all this, Murray said he would play the Australian Open.

Having been out for the best part of a year to June 2018, after a hip operation that didn’t really work, when Murray limped out onto court for his first-round match in Melbourne, he did with only one real expectation, that it might be his last.

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

"I’d be OK with that being my last match”

In some ways, that match was classic Andy Murray; for two sets his body would not allow him to compete against Roberto Bautista Agut, then ranked No 22. But just as it seemed he would disappear quietly into the night, Murray reminded everyone what had taken him to the very top of the sport. Defying the pain, his mind took over from his body and he forced the match to five sets.

All in all, it was one of the most remarkable performances of his career and as he said afterwards: “If today was my last match, it was a brilliant way to finish. I’d be OK with that being my last match”.

But even as the hastily-assembled tributes from his fellow players were shown to him on the big screen on court immediately afterwards, Murray looked a little uncomfortable and his words when it was over gave away his desire to play on. “Maybe I'll see you again,” he told the crowd. “I'll do everything possible to try.

In the days that followed, Murray’s mother, Judy Murray, who taught him the game, said she felt he was not finished with tennis. If there was a way back, she said, he would find it.

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

His game was there

Though the doubles star, Bob Bryan, had also returned to the Tour after the same operation, doing it in singles was new territory. Crucially, though, the operation worked and his pain, remarkably, was gone. Suddenly, Murray was hopeful again. Ever the professional, he did his rehab to the letter and though it was slow at first, the improvements gathered pace.

When he returned, ahead of schedule, at London’s Queen’s Club for the Aegon Championships in June, he was not 100 percent but it was a joyous occasion and with the help of an inspired Feliciano Lopez, he won the doubles title.

Still it seemed that singles might be a step too far. But Murray returned to competition soon after Wimbledon and after a slow start, his fitness improved, his game was there.

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Belief growing

Happy just to be out on court, he took time to get the results but in a trip to Asia, where he played three straight weeks, he turned a corner, his movement vastly improved, his belief growing by the match.

The following week, he returned to Europe and in Antwerp, he beat Stan Wawrinka in the final. It was his first title since his return, his 46th in all and perhaps the most emotional of the lot.

A year after he seemed done, Murray will be back at the Australian Open in January. His ranking may be just outside the top 100 but being there at all is a triumph of spirit, modern medicine, hard work and sheer will.

Murray will be happy to be there but he will give it his all, as he has always done.