The bar for returning to the Tour has been set incredibly high recently by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and most recently Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. Of course, not everyone has experienced such spectacular success, as Stan Wawrinka, who has won just six matches since beginning his comeback from a knee injury, could attest to. Hoping to avoid the struggles of Wawrinka and match the achievements of his three great rivals is Andy Murray.
What we learned from his comeback so far
The signs for Murray when he made his return at Queen’s Club were mostly positive. The same is broadly true of his performance in Eastbourne although the manner in which he was outclassed by Kyle Edmund was not entirely encouraging. But the major concern, which was that Murray would still be hampered by the hip injury that forced him under the surgeon’s scalpel in January, proved to be unfounded as the Scot moved freely.
His groundstrokes also looked solid, particularly on his favoured backhand side, and he displayed impressive feel against Nick Kyrgios, illustrating that his touch has not abandoned him after his lengthy absence. The familiar weakness of his second serve remained, but at this late stage in Murray’s career that is unlikely to ever be satisfactorily resolved. Besides, he has won three Grand Slams and ascended to the top of the rankings in spite of it, so it is evidently not too debilitating for him.
What really held him back, particularly against Kyrgios, and forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon, was a lack of fitness. He tired noticeably in the third set against the Australian and looked considerably less sharp against Edmund in the Eastbourne second round than he had in his victory over Wawrinka in the first. But it can hardly be accounted a surprise that a man who had not played competitive tennis in nearly a year was not as fit as those approaching their physical peak midway through the season.
To Washington and beyond…
Though Murray is a fine grass court player, probably the best of his generation behind Federer and Djokovic, he will likely fare better on the hard courts of North America than the grass courts of his native Britain. Whilst grass courts are notoriously slippery, particularly early in tournaments, hard courts provide the firmest footing on the Tour. That should allow Murray to move free of any concern about losing his grip on the court and re-injuring his hip.
It is, however, a more physically demanding surface to play on than grass, with the unforgiving asphalt putting greater pressure on players’ joints than grass and clay. The sweltering heat of the Americas will also provide Murray’s fitness with an immediate challenge. But despite his Scottish heritage, Murray has historically coped well with the heat, as his five Australian Open runner-up finishes and two titles in both Miami and Cincinnati show.
It may be safely assumed that Murray’s trip to Washington is intended to be the first of several stops in North America, and he has already accepted wild cards into the Canadian Open and the Cincinnati Masters. Though his plans for the US Open are not yet clear, he is virtually guaranteed to be awarded a wild card if he requests one or he could use his protected ranking to gain entry to the main draw if he so chose.
Thus his Washington campaign will likely be focused on getting match wins under his belt ahead of the bigger tournaments, rather than to go one better than he did in 2006 when he lost in the final to Arnaud Clement. How successful he is will likely rest on how kind the draw is to him. Without the protection of a seeding, he could quickly run into a dangerous opponent with three top ten players, including defending champion and world #3 Alexander Zverev, competing this year.
Murray’s draw will be key to how successful his trip is. It’s almost certainly too early in his comeback for him to come out on top against Zverev, or indeed Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson or John Isner, who is having the best season of his career. Because he’d almost certainly have to beat one of them, or the dangerous Kei Nishikori and David Goffin, to win the title, that outcome looks unlikely in the extreme.
But Murray showed at Queen’s and in Eastbourne that he still has the quality to compete, and it’s worth remembering that it took a player inside the top 25 to stop him on both occasions. Against anyone ranked much lower, based on the level he played at during the grass court season, it would be hard not to back him. A run to the quarterfinals looks possible for the former world #1, and that would provide a real building block for him ahead of the three biggest tournaments of the US Open Series.