British tennis breathed a collective sigh of relief as Andy Murray returned to the match court on Thursday with a thrilling 7-6, 6-3 victory in his first outing as a doubles player.
You could hardly say that his best days are ahead of him, given that he is now equipped with a bionic metal hip. But his whole game looked in such good order – and his movement, too – that January’s fears of imminent retirement can now be officially abandoned.
In fact, Murray on Thursday night revealed his plans for Wimbledon, where he will partner Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert – a four-time grand slam champion who won the title in SW19 only three years ago. On this evidence, they will be serious contenders to go all the way.
As for singles tennis, that probably remains a few months away. But as Murray said: “I feel optimistic about the future. I don’t know how long it will take to get to that level [the fitness required for singles], but hopefully not too long.”
Playing alongside Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez on Thursday, Murray held on to his serve throughout and produced numerous moments of inspiration. At one point, as he flicked away a reflex backhand winner from close range, Lopez looked at his own coach on the sidelines with a wide-eyed “What the hell was that?” reaction.
It was hardly as if Murray and Lopez were up against a pair of muppets. Robert Farah and Juan Sebastian Cabal were not just the top seeds here but also the leading doubles pair of the season so far, having won in Barcelona and Rome.
The Colombians brought a well-honed package of booming serves and rapid net-rushes, all more seamlessly coordinated than Murray and Lopez’s embryonic partnership, which threw up its inevitable moments of discombobulation.
But the best tennis players in the world are the best tennis players in the world. This axiom applies whether they are playing singles or doubles – and whether they have already racked up 50 matches in the season or spent the last four months jogging on an antigravity treadmill.
Murray reminded everyone that the old magic remains intact in the sixth game of the second set, when he created the only break of the match by hooking successive forehand returns up the near sideline and past the mesmerised Farah. His celebrations throughout had so much intensity that you might have thought he was playing in the Davis Cup final.
The 9,000-seat main stadium at Queen’s Club was mostly full for the contest, which only got going at around 6.30pm because of a series of lengthy singles matches. The crowd rose to give a standing ovation to a man whose previous competitive appearance had come at the Australian Open, on Jan 14, against Roberto Bautista Agut.
A couple of raindrops threatened to spoil the party, but they blew over quickly, and Murray’s first shot for five months proved to be a rasping backhand return straight into the ankles of the onrushing Farah. Impressively, Farah still clipped his low volley away for a winner, which showed the quality of the opposition.
At first, Murray was slightly flat-footed, repeatedly finding the net with his forehand return of serve. But there were flashes of brilliance already: a flicked backhand overhead and silky hands at the net.
Both teams were holding their serves so emphatically that the first set featured not a single break point – and barely a rally of more than four shots.
So to the tie-break, where the gods smiled on a man who deserves his share of luck after the agonies of the past couple of years. Murray saw two of his shots flick the net-cord and then fall for winners, while one of Lopez’s enjoyed the same unexpected bonus.
To get one lucky net-cord in a tie-break would be useful. To have three was positively greedy. That gave Murray and Lopez a useful advantage, and Murray then began to relax into his game.
“I sort of expected to be the worst player on the court tonight and to not feel particularly good on the court,” Murray said. “I was prepared to feel that way, which was probably the case in the first set.
“But then I think I started to play better in the second and started to serve a bit better, see the returns a little bit better. I have zero discomfort in my hip after the match – like, nothing. If I had done this last year, I’d be here aching, throbbing, and feel bad the next day.”
Asked what he had learned from his brush with retirement in January, Murray said: “I always felt like when I stop, I would want it to be a specific tournament, and Wimbledon felt like maybe the right place to do that. But after that match [against Bautista Agut], I realised that it isn’t about that.
“It will be when I’m not able to do it physically any more. Hopefully it’s a few years away, but we’ll see.”
What a return
I think most people hoped Murray would win a set, so that far exceeded expectations! He eased his way in and was then absolutely electric. No problems with the movement, and by the end he was hitting the sort of shots that propelled him to world No 1.
Everyone will get carried away with that, and why not? This is one of the most uplifting sporting stories in recent memory.
Game, set and match! Murray/Lopez defeat Cabal/Farah 7-6, 6-3
Oh wow! What a shot that is from Murray! He looks dead and buried, but conjures up a backhand pick-up winner out of nowhere. Murray goes bananas! The crowd goes wild! Lopez screams in delight! It's only 15-15, but wow that felt good. Lopez then produces consecutive aces, and it's two match points at 40-15! Cabal nets a backhand return on the first, and Murray/Lopez are through in straight sets!
Murray/Lopez* 7-6, 5-3 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Farah holds to love in the blink of an eye, so it's over to Lopez to serve for the match.
Murray/Lopez 7-6, 5-2 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
Murray falls down 0-30 and is given a time violation warning at 15-30, which prompts him into nailing his first ace of the match for 30-30. Soft Lopez hands then bring up 40-30, but a rocket Farah return makes it sudden death deuce and break point for the Colombians. Farah has a sitter of a backhand return to seal the break, but he pushes it just long! Murray holds, and Cabal/Farah will serve to stay in the match. Blimey, talk about small margins.
Murray/Lopez* 7-6, 4-2 Cabal/Farah (* next servers) - Murray/Lopez break!
Murray's definitely got his eye in now! A bulleted backhand followed by a forehand return winner moves him and Lopez up to 0-30. Cabal then butchers a volley, and it's four break points (including the possible sudden death deuce point) at 0-40! And they only need one! Murray rips another forehand return winner, and there's the break. After all he's been through, that must have felt so, so good.
Murray/Lopez 7-6, 3-2 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
More loud pro-Murray cheers, as a stunning overhead wraps up a hold to 15 on the Lopez serve. Oh Murray enjoyed that! He allows himself a big fist pump as he and Lopez skip to the chair.
Murray/Lopez* 7-6, 2-2 Cabal/Farah (* next servers) - Cabal/Farah save two break points and hold
Lopez absolutely nails a pair of returns, and all of a sudden it's 15-30 - his and Murray's first glimmer of a break. Another stunning return then forces Cabal to net a volley! It's 30-40, and the first break point of the match. Farah saves it though with a service winner. The next point is a sudden death deuce point. Murray and Lopez select the former to return, but a Cabal forehand bisects them both and the Colombians cling on. Ooh, that was so close to a first break.
Murray/Lopez 7-6, 2-1 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
This really is lovely to see from a completely biased pro-Murray perspective. He's serving solidly, volleying beautifully and seems to be moving fine. Who saw this coming in January?
As a visual aid, here are a couple of the volleys I was talking about from earlier in the set:
Murray/Lopez* 7-6, 1-1 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Excluding the all-important tie-break, Cabal and Farah have served almost flawlessly tonight. Murray nails one return, but it's another breezy hold to 15 for Cabal.
Murray/Lopez 7-6, 1-0 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
Lopez misses a volley on the first point, but he quickly makes up for it with some blistering serving and scoots to a hold to 15. Murray does his bit with some beautifully angled volleys. HE'S BACK!*
*He may not be back.
Murray/Lopez* 7-6 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Another net cord - this time off a Murray forehand - sends the ball flying past the Colombians at the net. He and Lopez are a set to the good! They win the first set tie-break 7-5.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez 6-5 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
A dead net cord off a Murray volley gives him and Lopez set point.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez* 5-5 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Cabal produces a ridiculous shot from behind his back, and then races to the net to pick off a volley. We're back level.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez* 5-4 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
A Lopez return clips the tape and loops past Cabal! Now it's Lopez/Murray up the mini-break - with two serves to clinch the set.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez 4-4 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
Murray makes amends with a drilled return to level things back up.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez 3-4 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
An excellent Cabal return destroys a weak Murray second serve. The Colombians now have the mini-break.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez* 3-3 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Murray sends a backhand volley just wide, and we're back level.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez* 3-2 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
A superb Farah volley cuts the gap to just one point.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez 3-1 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
A missed Murray return reduces the deficit.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez 3-0 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
Murray pings away a smash to keep the momentum going.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez* 2-0 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
A wonderful Lopez body serve extends his and Murray's lead.
First set tie-break: Murray/Lopez* 1-0 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
A brilliant Lopez return secures the instant mini-break.
Murray/Lopez 6-6 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers) - Tie-break
No problems for Murray, as another brilliant Lopez smash wraps up a hold to 15.
We're into a first set-break.
Murray/Lopez* 5-6 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Cabal posts another dominant love hold, and now it's Murray's turn to serve to stay in the first set.
Murray/Lopez 5-5 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
Lopez's serve really is a thing of beauty. The angles he generates with his leftie side-spin can make it almost impossible to return. Cabal and Farah manage to force 30-30, but Murray is rock solid at the net to help his team move to 40-30. A service winner then secures the hold.
Murray/Lopez* 4-5 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Farah continues to punch the clock when serving, registering another love hold and forcing Lopez to serve to keep him and Murray in the first set.
Murray/Lopez 4-4 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
Murray's service speeds are certainly not what they once were, but his placement has been very solid so far - and it's enough to earn him a hold to 15. Each player has now held twice, and we haven't had so much as a sniff of a break.
Murray/Lopez* 3-4 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Still Murray and Lopez can make no inroads when returning. Cabal holds to love, with the Colombian duo dropping just three points on their serve so far.
Murray looks to be moving fine so far, none of the limp that has dogged him for the last couple of years.
Murray/Lopez 3-3 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
Another superb Murray volley has the crowd on their feet, before a smash for 40-0 draws a similar response. Two Lopez aces in the other two points of the game seal a love hold for the Anglo-Spanish pair.
Murray/Lopez* 2-3 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
More pinpoint serving from Farah keeps the Colombian pair in front with another breezy hold to 15. Don't expect we'll see many breaks today.
Murray/Lopez 2-2 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
Murray holds!A couple of swinging serves on the deuce court help him to 40-0, before a very effective kick serve secures the game to 30.
Murray/Lopez* 1-2 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Cabal serves with good variety to draw a couple of missed returns and hold to 15. All three players have held their serve, now it's over to Andy...
Murray/Lopez 1-1 Cabal/Farah* (* next servers)
Lopez serves first, and with great accuracy. He bangs down a few bombs for 40-0, before Murray wraps up the hold with a backhand volley winner. Cue wild cheers!
Murray/Lopez* 0-1 Cabal/Farah (* next servers)
Farah serving first for his team, as Murray makes his first contribution with a solid backhand return that Farah deals with well. Cabal/Farah eventually hold to 15 - sealed with an ace down the T.
All three players are in all-whites, apart from Murray, who is in blue and white. Murray won the toss and elected to receive.
So Cabal and Farah will serve first to get us under way...
— ATP Tour (@ATP_Tour) June 20, 2019
They're knocking up
Looks like Andy has taken the ad court, which is his preferred side - but it means the lefty Lopez will be returning on his less-favoured backhand side.
Here we go
Murray and Lopez take to the court to a huge ovation. Everyone is on their feet.
Not long now
Tsitsipas has beaten Chardy 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, so taking to the court shortly will be Andy Murray.
We wait a little longer
Chardy served for the match against Tsitsipas, but ended up losing it on a tie-break - so they're going into a third and final set.
Murray then should be on court at around 6.30pm.
Afternoon all, one hip operation and 156 days since his last competitive match, Andy Murray is back on the tennis court.
It's a day that many feared would never come after Murray's tearful press conference in Melbourne when he detailed the extend of his physical troubles.
Five months on, Murray's mood appears to have completely changed. He said on the weekend that his operation has been "brilliant, completely life-changing" and appears to have made peace with the fact that he may never be an elite-level player again.
Today then is very much a case of testing the water. Despite all the intense training, no-one knows how Murray's body will hold up in competition - even in the less physically demanding arena of doubles.
Should all go to plan then Murray would hope to make the switch to singles before the end of the year - though most likely after the US Open in August and September.
In the immediate term, Murray and his partner Feliciano Lopez have a tricky assignment today against the Colombian top seeds Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah. The pair have the pedigree of reaching last year's Australian Open final and have won two Masters titles, even if grass is not their favourite surface.
Lopez meanwhile has had to cope with the unwanted distraction of match-fixing allegations, which he stringently denies. On the court, he too possesses considerable doubles pedigree, having won the 2016 French Open with his namesake Marc Lopez. He is also a very capable singles player, and reached a career-high singles ranking of No 12 in 2015.
We have no idea what to expect on the court, but we do know Murray will be in for an almightily uplifting reception. The players will be on court after the conclusion of Stefanos Tsitsipas's match against Jeremy Chardy. Chardy won the first set and it's currently on serve in the early stages of the second.