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Andy Murray’s withdrawal from Washington a sign of the bigger picture

The Guardian logo The Guardian 04/08/2018 Simon Cambers
An emotional Andy Murray decided to withdraw from the Citi Open following his exhausting victory over Marius Copil. © AP An emotional Andy Murray decided to withdraw from the Citi Open following his exhausting victory over Marius Copil.

Of all the things Andy Murray promised when he began his comeback, at Queen’s Club in June, his pledge to listen to his body stood out above the rest. Throughout his career, Murray has pushed himself to the absolute physical limit. Three grand slam titles, two gold medals, Davis Cup, the No 1 ranking and a total of 45 titles is an incredible reward for his efforts.

But it has taken its toll. At 31 and after hip surgery in January, Murray knows that understanding his limits is even more crucial than ever. And so, after a gruelling, emotional four days in Washington this past week on his latest comeback, his decision to quit before his quarter-final must be viewed as part of the bigger picture.

Related: Andy Murray withdraws from Citi Open after 3am win leaves him 'exhausted'

Likewise, his decision to pull out of the Rogers Cup in Toronto, a Masters 1000 event which begins on Monday, is sensible. Having not played since Eastbourne, the week before Wimbledon, Murray probably did not expect to do as well as he did in Washington. As he continues his recovery, planning, scheduling and patience will be every bit as important as technique and mental strength in battle. He will now head to Cincinnati to prepare early for his first Masters 1000 event in 15 months, starting a week on Monday. All being well, he will then be ready for the next step up, best-of-five-set matches at the US Open, which begins on 27 August.

Murray will have learned a lot from the past few days. Just getting to the last eight of the Citi Open was a huge achievement. Three matches in four days, in the heat and humidity of the American capital, will have tested his right hip to the extreme. Beating Kyle Edmund in three sets on Wednesday will have boosted his confidence but outlasting the Romanian Marius Copil the next night, in a match that finished at 3am, just about did him in.

As it turned out, Murray’s scheduled quarter-final against the young Australian Alex de Minaur would have been held over to Saturday because of rain. But though the extra time might have allowed Murray to be competitive, the prospect of playing two matches in one day is not something that the Scot would have enjoyed.

Watching Murray sit, sobbing into his towel after his win over Copil, it was tempting to wonder what was going through his mind. Perhaps it was the scheduling, forcing him to play late into the night, that had got to him. Maybe he already realised that his hip had taken enough punishment for the week and he was unlikely to be able to play his quarter-final. Maybe he was appreciating being back in the heat of the battle. Or perhaps he could feel how far away he still is, and how difficult it might be to get back toward the top of the game. But second-guessing Murray is a hopeless task and he has often been critical of those who think they know what he might be thinking. As he said, moments after his win over Copil: “[It was] just the emotions coming at the end of an extremely long day and a long match.”

Off the Tour for 11 months, and after the second surgery of his career following his back operation in 2013, Murray must have feared he would never be able to play at this level again. In Washington, though his movement was not yet back to its absolute best, he was straining every sinew to chase every ball down his body would allow.

Watching Murray sit sobbing into his towel, it was tempting to wonder what was going through his mind

So what should we make of his latest comeback? The signs are encouraging and he is improving match on match. Whereas at Queen’s and Eastbourne he looked like he was being careful not to push himself too much, especially when running wide on the forehand, in Washington he threw himself around the court. After a patchy performance in the first round, when he admitted he was a little passive, he attacked against Edmund, stepping into returns and trying to dictate. His serve, too, slipped into rhythm when he needed it and he was mentally strong.

Playing three-hour epics, day in day out, is the job of a younger man, preferably one with no hip problems. Murray does not have a Roger Federer-style serve or a Rafael Nadal forehand that can destroy opponents in a single stroke; his success has been built on an all-round game backed up by outstanding athleticism. But when he was looking to make the step up to become a grand slam champion, he realised he needed to attack. Now, with his body talking loudly to him, shortening points would help again.

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What Murray will never lack is heart. Having begun Washington as the world No 832, his efforts have already taken him up to 375. If there is a way back to the top, there can be no doubt that he has the will.

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