Andy Murray goes into this week’s US Open with his best chance of success at Grand Slam level for more than three years and fuelled by a determination to prove wrong a doctor who had said he would never play again if he underwent major hip surgery.
The 33-year-old Scot, who faces Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka in his opening match at Flushing Meadows on Tuesday, had a hip “resurfacing” operation last year performed by Dr Sarah Muirhead-Allwood, but only after another doctor had advised that such surgery would spell an end to his career.
“There is one person in particular who helped me,” Murray said as he considered what had motivated him during his lengthy fight to regain fitness. “It was the doctor-surgeon who told me after Wimbledon in 2017 that I didn't have long left. He said: ‘You could have surgery – resurfacing or hip replacement – but you won't play professional sport again.’
“It was weird timing. I actually bumped into him the morning after I had my hip resurfacing, when I took my first steps on the new hip with the crutches. He walked past me in the hallway and he smiled at me and said to my wife: ‘I told him he was going to have to do this.’
“It just really got me. I was not happy. I would say that was the thing that gave me the biggest motivation, because at that moment I had obviously been going through a difficult time and had had the operation. I felt that there was a bit of smugness to what he told me. That was enough for me.
“I was actually going to send him a bottle of wine to say thanks for the motivation once I had got back on the court competing again, but I haven’t brought myself to do that yet.”
Having recovered from a further injury setback at the end of last year, Murray demonstrated in last week’s Masters Series tournament, which was switched from Cincinnati to New York, that there is little wrong with his game. In beating Alexander Zverev, the world No 7, Murray recorded his first victory over a top 10 opponent since the 2017 French Open, which was when he first injured his hip.
Murray admitted that it had not been until several months after the resurfacing operation in January last year that he had believed he would be able to compete again at the highest level. “It was probably not until I got back on the tour and played guys in singles that I actually really believed it,” he said.
While a number of top players will be missing from the first Grand Slam tournament to be played since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka are among those missing from the men’s draw while only two of the top eight women have travelled to New York – Murray is glad that he decided to enter
With no spectators on-site, the top seeds and former champions have each been allocated a hospitality box in Arthur Ashe Stadium where they can base themselves with their entourages. “That was a big win for me,” Murray said. “You have a space to be able to go and hang out, there’s TV and you can sit and watch anyone that’s practising on Arthur Ashe.
“They have done a really, really good job. They’ve done the best they could have done in this situation. I didn’t really know what to expect. I hadn’t really played any tournaments like this before, but for me the hotel and venue are absolutely fine, there are lots of different activities for the players, and the shuttle buses are running every 15 minutes. They have done a good job. It feels safe. I’m happy I decided to come. A lot of players were apprehensive about it and didn’t know what it was going to be like, but for the most part I think the players are pleased with how it’s gone.”
Murray could face a fellow Briton, Dan Evans, in the third round, though the Scot would probably have to beat Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, the world No 20, to get that far. Evans, who is seeded at the US Open for the first time after reaching his current career-high position at No 28 in the world rankings, starts against a 20-year-old Brazilian, Thiago Seyboth Wild, the world No 113, who won his first tour title in Santiago earlier this year. The winner will face Corentin Moutet or Jiri Vesely in the second round.
However, Evans, who has won six matches against higher-ranked opponents since the start of this year, refuses to consider the possibility of taking on Murray, whom he beat in the Battle of the Brits at Roehampton two months. “I think we both know better than that because there are two tough matches in front of both of us before that could happen,” he said. “I have to stay focused on my service games. If I do that well, I have a good chance of winning some matches. I didn’t serve great last week. I need to try and rectify that and keep my focus on each match.”
There are two other Britons in the men’s draw. Cameron Norrie faces a tough test against Diego Schwartzman, the world No 13, while Kyle Edmund will take on Alexander Bublik, with the winner set to face Novak Djokovic. In the men’s doubles Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski will be hoping to build on their appearance in the final of last week’s Masters Series event, which was their best run since they joined forces last summer.
The only two Britons in the women’s draw, Johanna Konta and Heather Watson, face each other in the first round, which is unfortunate given that both have been in good form this year. Konta, in her second tournament since appointing the highly experienced Thomas Hogstedt as her coach, reached the semi-finals in last week’s event, while Watson her first title for four years in Acapulco just before the lockdown. In the second round Konta or Watson will face Sorana Cirstea or Christina McHale, with Venus Williams a possible third-round opponent.
Konta has not experienced any repeat of the heart palpitations she suffered during her first comeback tournament in Kentucky earlier this month and is pleased with how she is playing. “I definitely feel like I’m competing better and better,” she said.
Watson has lost all three of their previous meetings and saw for herself evidence of Konta's form when she watched her last week. “She’s playing very well at the moment,” Watson said. “She’s very good at what she does, which is being aggressive, hitting big serves. She sticks to that game plan regardless. When she executes it she’s one of the best in the world.”
For all the players, it will surely be the strangest Grand Slam tournament in which they have ever played. The US Open is traditionally the world’s best attended annual sporting event and Flushing Meadows is normally a cauldron of noise.
“I think it's going to be difficult for the players mentally,” Murray said. “There are people saying that some of the players will find it challenging playing without fans. It is difficult, but the level of tennis is what's important if you can block out all of the weirdness of playing in big stadiums without a crowd.
“I actually felt OK doing that last week. It didn't feel too bad in the matches, but it will be tricky. I play my first match on Arthur Ashe. Some of the best atmospheres that I've ever played in have been on that court. To go out there in such a huge stadium and have literally no one in the stands is going to be weird.”
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