There will surely be an awkward air in the room when Andy Murray walks back into Melbourne Park next January. After all, it was at the Australian Open where the former world number one was played a highly emotive video while still on court wishing him well in retirement. The retirement Murray had still to confirm. A lot has changed since then.
Sunday saw Murray win his first ATP title since undergoing career-saving surgery on his hip earlier in the year. His victory over Stan Wawrinka in the European Open final represented a remarkable, almost unbelievable, recovery. Murray has won bigger titles and has beaten stronger opponents, but given the context few victories have felt as significant.
Murray has already confirmed that he will play at the Australian Open, his first Grand Slam since that uncomfortable farewell ceremony at Hisense Arena. The Scot won’t just be content with making up numbers at a major, though. Murray, as a two-time Wimbledon and US Open winner, will want to add to his tally over the final few years of his career now that he has been afforded a reprieve.
Of course, Murray will need to step up his level again to handle best-of-five set matches as opposed to the best-of-three set encounters he has come through over the Asian swing of the season. Playing in the Davis Cup next month will help Murray in this regard, but the season is winding down at just the wrong time for the 32-year-old.
Murray still has a long way to go to become a top 10 player again. A few weeks ago, the Scot’s movement was a real issue. In Antwerp, however, he looked to have regained a yard or two of pace. Even still, Murray will likely never boast the court coverage he did before surgery. He might need to be more proactive, either in stepping forward from the baseline or rushing the net, to compensate.
His serve could also do with some work. Murray was hindered by a sore elbow throughout last week’s European Open and so this might have been a factor in his tame serving, but going forward from this point he must raise his first serve percentage quite significantly. Variety would also help his second serve from being such a target for opponents.
It would also serve Murray well to go after his forehand a little more. This was one of the biggest differences Ivan Lendl made to the Scot’s game, but his swing off the forehand side has looked somewhat cagey since his return from injury. That, of course, is understandable. Murray’s instinct while still vulnerable is to stay in the point, but he must seek to end those points a little quicker.
Odds of +2500 illustrate how Murray will still be an outside bet for the 2020 Australian Open, but given the pace of his comeback so far it’s not impossible to envisage that the Scot will be a contender by the time Wimbledon rolls around next year. That has to be the aim.
“I need to now start talking more about my future and I am certainly a lot more optimistic now,” Murray said after his triumph in Belgium. “When I spoke to my team before the trip to Asia, I was like, ‘What are the goals here?’ And I was like, ‘I just want to be competitive. I want to feel that when I am on the court I am not getting smashed by guys’. I wasn’t thinking, ‘I am going to win tournaments’ or ‘I am going to beat guys like Stan and [Matteo] Berrettini’. So this has come as a surprise to me and my team.”
What Murray has already achieved is remarkable. But last week’s run at the European Open hinted at what the final act of the former world number one’s career might hold. Improvement is still required, but just six months ago Murray’s daily training consisted of him tamely hitting a ball against a wall. Imagine just how much further he can go in another six months.