Former world No 1 earned a hard-fought win in his first round in Washington but faces a significant step-up against Edmund
Andy Murray takes a big step forward in his long road of recovery
The scale of the task facing Andy Murray as he strives to return to the upper echelons of men’s tennis was laid bare on Monday night.
Competing in just his fourth match of the year following hip surgery in January, the three-time grand slam champion was pushed all the way in the Washington Open first round by world No 80 Mackenzie McDonald, eventually progressing 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 in two hours and 36 minutes.
Murray’s lack of match practice was evident early on as the 31-year-old Briton had his serve broken three times in the opening set. From that shaky start, Murray vastly improved, but still required seven match points to close out victory, four of which he surrendered before getting broken when serving for the match at 5-4.
Ultimately, Murray came through the contest to book his place in the second round and a meeting with Kyle Edmund – the player who now holds the status of British No 1.
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And at this stage of his comeback, that is what matters: minutes on court, shake off some rust, work on timing and movement, and get the win no matter how ugly.
The extended roar Murray let out upon clinching victory seemed to be one of relief as much as celebration. For a player who has relied on supreme fitness to reach the very top of his sport, there must be plenty of bottled up frustration when that same body is currently unable to operate at the level required to get back to where he was.
"I fought hard and I had to," Murray said after his victory late on Monday night. "The movements and stuff were fine. I didn't break down. It lasted pretty well.
"I enjoyed getting through that one. You could see it in the celebration. That was a tough match. It could have gone either way. It was nice to get it."
Murray faces a tough challenge to continue his comeback in Washington beyond the second round.
Edmund, the world No 18, is enjoying the best season of his career and the improvements in the 23-year-old’s game have been significant - wins this year over Kevin Anderson, Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin, and Novak Djokovic testament to his sharp rise.
Then there was the comfortable win over Murray in their most recent encounter at Eastbourne in June. Granted, Murray was competing in just his third match in almost a year, but while the double Olympic champion has had some more weeks to work on his fitness, Edmund will start their duel as the favourite to advance.
“I'll have to play much better if I want to win that match, more aggressively," Murray said when asked about Edmund as his next opponent. "It will help having one more match under my belt."
Returning from long-term injury has always provided unique challenges for tennis players. Unlike team sports where athletes can ease their way back by being gradually exposed to more game-time, tennis players are dependent on schedules, luck of the draw, and tournament handouts in the form of wildcards.
For Murray, he was somewhat fortunate to face McDonald in the first round in Washington – a player of decent skill but who would never trouble Murray pre-injury.
Yet, Murray’s progress could be halted in the next round when he takes a significant step-up in opponent. He will then have to wait until the Rogers Cup in Toronto next week for his chance to gain more much-needed match time.
And Murray’s hopes of getting a kind draw in Toronto will severely diminish given his unseeded ranking and the absence of first round byes for the seeded players. It is therefore feasible that Murray suffers a first round loss in Canada and then has to wait patiently for his next opportunity – at the Cincinnati Masters the following week.
It is a similar minefield a fellow former world No 1 had to navigate this season. It took Novak Djokovic nearly seven months to rediscover enough form to win his 13th grand slam title at Wimbledon after the elbow injury that ruled him out for the second half of 2017.
The big difference, however, is that Djokovic never saw his ranking slip below 22 and was therefore eligible for direct entry and a seeding in most tournaments. Murray is having to claw his way back from No 832.
It is unfamiliar territory for Murray, who said in the build-up to Washington: "It sort of feels like I am starting from scratch again. It's going to be hard but it should be fun.”
So he seems to be embracing the challenge ahead. A post on Instagram last week of the ATP rankings with his current position circled and accompanied with “#proud” suggests as much.
Such is the nature of professional tennis and its knockout format, patience will be the ultimate virtue for Murray on this long road to recovery. The fact he is under no illusions will hold him in good stead, but the only way he can make significant progress is to win matches. Easier said than done.