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The end for Andy Murray has never felt closer

The 36-year-old admitted he could have played at the Australian Open for the last time after a demoralising straight-sets defeat to Tomas Martin Etcheverry

Jamie Braidwood
Monday 15 January 2024 21:24 GMT
Murray questioned his future after his first-round defeat
Murray questioned his future after his first-round defeat (Reuters)

Andy Murray had seen “the end” before at the Australian Open. In 2019, it was thought he was waving goodbye after a five-set defeat to Roberto Bautista Agut – until the decision to undergo hip resurfacing surgery allowed the three-time grand slam champion to embark on this final stage of his career. And so the tribute video played then on the big screen at the Rod Laver Arena did not mark his retirement. Perhaps the file is still somewhere in Melbourne Park.

Five years later, it could be needed again, with Murray closer to the end now than he has been at any point since returning to the sport following a demoralising straight-sets defeat to Tomas Martin Etcheverry in the opening round. If Murray’s performance painted a bleak picture of how far away the 36-year-old is from challenging at the top of the sport, his words revealed an even starker truth: Murray was subdued and “flat” – and he did not know why.

With the fight gone from Murray’s game, there was not much left to trouble Etcheverry, and the 30th seed cruised to victory without any danger of facing another Murray comeback. Last year, it was Murray’s heart that powered his metal hip and weary body to two of the greatest wins of this post-surgery phase of his career, when he stunned Matteo Berrettini and then fought from two sets down to defeat Thanasi Kokkinakis.

But Etcheverry’s dominance stripped Murray of what has been his greatest weapon – his spirit and resolve. If Murray’s miracle escape against Kokkinakis 12 months ago was the peak of his career twilight, the manner of his defeat to Etcheverry was perhaps the lowest point of his return from injury, at least at the grand slams. Murray was emotional when he waved goodbye to the crowd and later confirmed there is a “definite possibility” it was his last appearance at a tournament where he is a five-time finalist. If that is the case, the 2024 season would be his last as well.

A despondent Murray at the after-match press call (Getty Images)

Yet such an admission came after Murray entered the year speaking confidently about the changes he had made to his game. Following a difficult end to last season, he said was happy with how he arrived at the Australian Open. But Murray was stunned by his performance against Etcheverry, not on a technical level, but in terms of emotion. He found he could not roar to the crowd or use them to spur a response and spark the usual fire from within. “A bizarre feeling,” he said.

While the feeling was new, the result continued a pattern. Despite encouraging signs at last season’s Australian Open and Wimbledon, the second half of Murray’s year was marked by his final-set collapses to Alex De Minaur in Paris and Beijing. Over the off-season, Murray put in the work to add power to his serve in an effort to win more free points and shorten his matches. Yet it was ineffective against Etcheverry: his forehand and backhand breaking down across the second and third sets that were riddled with errors and dominated by the Argentine.

Murray had also worked to control his emotions. He wondered afterwards if he had lost sight of the balance, citing Novak Djokovic as an example of how to channel anger and frustration into focus and questioning whether he had gone too far in the other direction. Yet the most alarming aspect of Murray’s defeat was the sense that, by the end, he had already accepted his fate. “When you're one point away from the end, you're like, I can't believe this is over so quickly, and like this,” he said. “In comparison to the matches that I played here last year, it's the complete opposite feeling walking off the court. A tough, tough way to finish.”

Murray waves to the crowd, perhaps for the last time at Melbourne (Reuters)

Murray has an idea in his head on when he would like his career to finish and it is a decision he will discuss with his family and team. Ultimately, it is a choice that rests on his body and metal hip continuing to hold, but also on the enjoyment he receives from the sport. And while it is one thing enjoying the grind of training and practice, it is another when the results of that time and effort cannot be replicated when it counts. He believes it will come but time is running out and the evidence is hard to overlook. “When you have performances like today, or a batch of results over a period of time like I have done, it's tough to keep believing in that,” he said.

If the Australian Open does not host Murray again, its tribute video would of course need a significant update: not in the addition of titles won or records set, but in the inclusion of a comeback that defied what was possible and yet encapsulated his career. It would finish with Murray at the Australian Open last January, roaring into the night after defeating Kokkinakis at 4am: a picture of defiance. Twelve months on, without that emotion, he was left to consider the reality that another miracle has never felt so far away.

Osaka beaten in first round of comeback as Gauff races through

Naomi Osakas grand slam return ended prematurely in a first-round loss to 16th seed Caroline Garcia. Playing in her first major tournament since the US Open in 2022 following the birth of daughter Shai last summer, Osaka gave Garcia a good fight but fell to a 6-4 7-6 (2) defeat on Rod Laver Arena. It is the first time the 26-year-old, who won the title in Melbourne in 2019 and 2021, has lost in the opening round.

Osaka made her return in Brisbane a fortnight ago, beating Tamara Korpatsch before a narrow loss to Karolina Pliskova. This was a step up both in occasion and opponent but Osaka showed her serve and groundstrokes have lost none of their potency, drawing grasps from the crowd with her crisp ball-striking. There were a few too many errors, though, and Garcia’s break of serve to lead 3-2 ultimately decided the set. Neither player could find the breakthrough in the second set but France’s Garcia, who served 13 aces in all, was the stronger in the tie-break.

Garcia, right, put an end to Osaka’s comeback (Reuters)

Coco Gauff eased into the second round but Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova was an early casualty. The Czech seventh seed, a surprise winner at the All England Club last summer, won only three games in a 6-1 6-2 thumping by Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska.

Sixth seed Ons Jabeur made a confident start, beating qualifier Yuliia Starodubtseva 6-3 6-1 to set up a second-round clash with Russian Mirra Andreeva – the third 16-year-old to reach the last 64. The teenager was a beaten finalist in the girls’ singles last year but has made rapid strides in the senior game, including a run to the fourth round of Wimbledon. “I know she’s 16 years old, but she’s very tough,” said Jabeur. “I might be her idol, but she wants to go there and kick my ass for sure.”

In the men’s draw, Daniil Medvedev was troubled by the Melbourne heat but benefited from the tearful retirement of opponent Terence Atmane to move through to the second round. The third seed, twice a beaten finalist here, dropped the first set to French qualifier Atmane and called the trainer for treatment on his thighs. But ultimately it was Atmane who decided that he could not go on, the 22-year-old calling it a day trailing 5-7 6-2 6-4 1-0.

Last year’s beaten finalist, Stefanos Tsitsipas, also found himself a set down to lucky loser Zizou Bergs before fighting back to win 5-7 6-1 6-1 6-3. Alex De Minaur is carrying the hopes of the home nation after breaking into the top 10 for the first time and he dropped the first set against Milos Raonic, who came out of retirement last summer, before the Canadian pulled out trailing 6-7 (6) 6-3 2-0.

American Ben Shelton, who made a breakthrough run to the quarter-finals here last year, eased into round two with a 6-2 7-6 (2) 7-5 victory over Roberto Bautista Agut but there were defeats for former champion Stan Wawrinka and Canadian Denis Shapovalov.

Includes reporting from PA

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