Andy Murray’s blighted Australian sojourn came to a dramatic halt on Thursday, as he headed for home to contemplate the grim prospect of having surgery on his injured hip. The 30-year-old Scot flew out of Brisbane to Melbourne just before lunchtime – giving the impression he was making a last-ditch effort to get ready for the Australian Open, which starts on Monday week – but his intention was always to board a flight back to London.
An operation and the resultant recovery would keep Murray out of the game for several months, but could also save a career that has been imperilled since his painful exit from Wimbledon in July. He has not played since.
He said in a brief statement before leaving: “Sadly I won’t be playing in Melbourne this year, as I am not yet ready to compete. I’ll be flying home shortly to assess all the options but I appreciate all the messages of support and I hope to be back playing soon.”
Tournament organiser Craig Tiley said: “We are fully aware that Andy has been going through a difficult period with his hip and that he’s done everything possible to prepare for the Australian summer. Andy loves tennis and would do anything to play. This is a very hard decision for Andy and we totally respect it. We wish him the absolute best on his road to recovery and look forward to having him back in Melbourne. He is a true champion and one of our favourites.”
After battling against the odds to get back on court, the former world No1 was forced to bow to the logic of his own declaration in November: “I’ll come back when I’m ready and a hundred per cent fit.”
He is far from that. Having striven so hard through 24 unbeaten matches at the end of 2016 to reach the summit of his sport, Murray has tumbled to 16 in the world and will drop at least a further two places on Monday, which would have left him seriously vulnerable in the Open draw.
It is true that the chronic and still unspecified problem in his right hip that let him down in his last competitive match – a gruelling five-setter against Sam Querrey on day nine of Wimbledon – has improved through intense physiotherapy and hours of hard work away from the court. However, on the visual evidence as well as the player’s own admission, he is short of the match fitness required to be even vaguely competitive at the highest level.
Murray has shown some of his old pace in practice and has struck the ball with power and purpose but his strained lateral movement, especially on his forehand side, would have made him an easy target for any ambitious opponent. His limp remains pronounced and his demeanour is downcast.
Since he made his firm statement of intent about his comeback plans nearly two months ago – ahead of his charity exhibition match against Roger Federer in Glasgow – Murray has hobbled unconvincingly through an eight-game public workout against Roberto Bautista Agut in Abu Dhabi last Friday and then on Tuesday to the office of Cameron Pearson, the tournament director of the Brisbane Open, to apologise for pulling out without hitting a ball.
His decision took everyone by surprise, including his protege, Kyle Edmund, and close Australian friend, Nick Kyrgios. There was widespread sympathy in the locker room and beyond for Murray and he responded with a heartfelt explanation on Instagram.
Murray has seemed troubled and isolated since he arrived in Queensland at the weekend, refusing to talk to the media after an upbeat pre-tournament press conference and finally leaving Brisbane in a rush with his small entourage to catch Virgin Flight 326 to Melbourne just before lunch on Thursday.
There was no announcement of his departure, and only a casual remark by a driver in the tournament’s transport team brought his Melbourne dash to light. Having agreed with his management in London overnight to meet British tennis writers on Friday, Murray was incommunicado again, before relenting just before departure.
It is out of character for one of the most polite players in the game to be as secretive as this, reflecting, perhaps, his mounting anxiety about the state of his hip. The problem appears to have become so serious it has disrupted all his plans for a measured comeback. If untended, it certainly would end his career – and that is a prospect that would make any player nervous.
His anxieties surfaced dramatically on Wednesday in his Instagram admission that, having flatly rejected surgery for six months, the high-stakes option now looked to be the only option left to him.
At least he has company. Kei Nishikori earlier in the day withdrew from the Australian Open, while Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka, among several others, are all carrying injuries, or recovering from them.
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