Andy Murray’s decision to go under the knife in a Melbourne hospital on Monday morning – defying a swathe of expert and amateur opinion – looks like it has mended not only his right hip but revitalised the stubborn streak that has made the Scot such a remarkable player. It would seem he is not done yet, not by a long way.
There should be no doubt, though: Murray may have put his faith in one of the world’s best hip surgeons (a friend he has known for nine years, it emerged) but this was a calculated gamble. Plenty of players have tried hip surgery and discovered their playing days were pretty much done.
There are no guarantees but Dr John O’Donnell looks to have delivered Murray the result he will treasure alongside winning any of his three grand slams, two Olympic gold medals and reaching the pinnacle of his sport, when he ground his peers into submission in an astonishing run of 24 unbeaten matches in 2016 to unseat Novak Djokovic as the world No1. Murray paid the price for that surge of manic passion when his body collapsed six months ago.
Since then he has endured not only the misery of tedious rehab – his preferred option – but other false dawns and setbacks, first at the US Open, when he withdrew two days before the tournament, minor groin surgery on 18 December and further drama last week in Brisbane when he cancelled his scheduled comeback.
Now, though, he can smile a little. Dr O’Donnell was, Murray says, “very happy about how it went”. While “it” remains a vague entity, Murray, mercurial as ever, described the problem and the cure in the most general terms. What we do know is there was immense and constant pain.
For the first time he elaborated on the suffering on the day he lost to Sam Querrey in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon but the causes he chose to keep to himself.
“At Wimbledon, everything was hurting. I had never been in pain like that before. The thing that was stopping me from playing – and the reason I decided to have the surgery – was I was struggling to do extensions. Any time I had to sprint, with my right leg behind me, or like when I was walking, I was in pain. I could move about 80% [efficiently] but that last 10, 15 or 20%, when I would have to sprint or move extremely fast or very explosively, I wasn’t able to do it. It wasn’t that my leg couldn’t get into those positions. I was stopping myself extending my leg because of the pain.”
Murray worried about surgery; he had come through a back operation in late 2013 and was not keen to go through the process again but he put his total trust in O’Donnell at St Vincent’s hospital.
“It depends on what they see when they go in there,” Murray said of the risk factor. “When you look at my hip on an MRI scan just now, it doesn’t look very good. Most tennis players’ hips, if you scanned them, wouldn’t look particularly good. If he said: ‘Right, I’m going to literally do everything to have your hip look clear on an MRI scan’, the potential is that the time out [would be] long – and also there is a good chance you don’t recover to a level to play tennis.
“When we discussed it with him, it was, look, let’s try to do as little as possible with the highest chance of success but with the knowledge that, when he goes there if there’s things he sees that need to be done, he repairs and sorts them. That is what he did.”
Murray described the fraught final moments in a Brisbane hotel, where he sat alone for 10 hours, mulling over his future. “The decision was made on Wednesday, late afternoon or evening. But, on the Tuesday night when I withdrew from the tournament, I had pretty much made my mind up. I met with John on the Wednesday. He’s one of the best in the world and he’s known me since I was 20, 21 years old, I’ve seen him lots of times over the years and felt like he was the right person to do it.
“In terms of how I recover from it, I don’t need to say: ‘Yeah, I’m going to get back to being the best in the world, or try to compete for the biggest tournaments.’ A lot of it is down to your determination and your work ethic and how well you rehab, how much you listen and do all the correct things.
“We have to wait and see how all of that goes and how I recover. When I start playing again I won’t have played a match for 10 or 11 months. But it’s not like I’ve had surgery after Wimbledon and haven’t hit a ball until now. I was practising daily pretty much through to the US Open and then after having three weeks off post-US Open I’ve been hitting balls for the last three or four months. Hopefully I’ll be hitting balls on the court after seven or eight weeks.
“It’s not like I’m going to not hit a tennis ball for eight months and then practise for two months and then start playing again. I’ve been fairly competitive with top 50 players in the world in Brisbane, when I’ve been struggling to move, and I made the quarter-finals at Wimbledon when I literally couldn’t walk. So, if I can get myself to 95% of my best, I believe that’s enough to compete at the highest level. No question.”
Murray admitted he has thought about hip surgery after he stops playing. “From speaking to a lot of people who have had [hip replacements], they are extremely successful and that’s always an option when you are older.
“When I’ve been doing nothing for the last five or six days, then I can cope. My hip is not massively sore; I just have to walk with a bit of a limp. But the reason for having it done was to allow me to get back competing and play tennis. That’s what I want to keep doing and I’m not finished playing tennis yet.
“I had spoken to my wife about surgery. One of the things I would like to do is play until my eldest daughter is able to watch me and have a small understanding of what it is I’ve done for my living. That’s one of the things that’s motivated me to keep playing.
“The rest of my body feels fantastic. I feel really good physically, apart from this one issue. The surgery allows me to extend my hip well and I’ll be able to sprint. I think I’m going to be back on the court competing at the highest level again.”
Others were not sure. Murray was never in doubt.
The Guardian Sport