The image of the match was one of a hunched over Andy Murray, gulping the burnt Melbourne air for all it would offer him, glaring at his camp as though they themselves had forced him on court by gun-point. This look is, of course, the Scot’s calling card, one that he’s signed off on and stamped as his own as he’s kicked and screamed his way through career fluctuations of immensity rarely seen in professional sport.
We’ll join him deep in the fourth set, having cruised in the first, let slip the second and stolen the third. It’s the Australian Open 2022 and it’s Andy Murray after-hours and so the language was as colourful as it ever has been, an expression of his tendency to expect impossible perfection. This was his first match in this arena since that fateful night in 2019 when the sun seemingly set on his career, back before he burned through his hands in order to push the flames back skywards.
His ability to overcomplicate storylines within his matches have left fans who love and adore him cursing his name, watching as he makes the eyebrow-raising look easy and the straightforward look Everest-like.
And that was very much the case here as his defensive style of play went to war with Nikoloz Basilashvili’s, an aggressive base-liner who rips the fuzz off balls with racket strings loose, motoring shots for winners or into the back wall, leaving nothing in between. When he’s on, the Georgian is – unfortunately – on and in this match, he was light-switching, doubling-or-nothing.
Murray, for his part, ran. Scooping and slicing, floating balls at awkward angles, searching to befuddle. The result was an artwork that was difficult to properly appreciate, a match that hung as much on lung-busted errors as it did name-up-in-lights headliners.
It was energy sapping in its every happening and we’ve seen it often throughout Murray’s tour years, a natural tendency to avoid fire-with-fire play, other options tempting him in with promises of success.
So into the action of the fourth, Murray broke back having been down in the set early and finally drew level, leading his fans the world over to believe in the power of internet prayer circles. I can speak for only myself here when I say that the excitement that this push-back provided was very much of the accidentally-spilling-my-morning-cornflakes-down-my-pyjamas variety.
A tiebreak then and for Murray, not happy hunting grounds as he fell down in the score quickly and struggled to muscle advantage, a tired swat of a slice into the net on a return enough to secure the set for Basilashvili.
This period of the match attested to Murray’s continual commitment to the over-complicated, decision-making that benefitted him in his younger years on fresher legs but impacts him heavily now when trying to work his way through early tournament stages.
Murray needs to find other ways to survive the rot of match-ups like this going forwards, contests that have the potential to suck out souls through the players’ mouths and leave them running only on all of the nothing much. Finding himself locked in for the long haul is unsustainable when working to see that second week of a Major again, something he’ll undoubtedly be aware of.
He may well still be searching for the certainty and belief in his own body and ability that he had when he sat atop the rankings but he’ll need to try and at least pretend to have found them if he’s to avoid being dragged through rigorous physical cross-examinations such as this.
It’s highly unlikely that Andy Murray will ever be a one-two punch point-over sort of player but with time, perhaps he’ll be able to settle back into being a three-four-punch one.
For now though, it was time for the fifth and the final and Murray of course came up with answers, stumbled upon too late to clock out at the end of the fourth but utilised now to break down Basilashvili’s game. Naturally, Murray did as Murray does and kept us guessing through to the ending, letting Basilashvili back in and requiring another drive forward to finally take it.
This was his first match won at the Australian Open in five years, completed in a roundabout way if the roundabout in question wove like a snake between hills and through valleys, crossed jagged thorny patches of unmapped land, and lost itself in forests of noises loud and quiet and hidden from view in the darkness.
Indeed, as the crowd in John Cain stood, Murray fans globally collapsed back, empty crinkled cans of energy drinks and coffee mugs strewn about amongst crisp packets and sweet tubes, empty beer bottles and whiskey glasses, headachy tiredness blurring visions, the signs of the stresses and struggles that we hate and love him for forcefully inflicting. Our plans for the day ruined, our sleeping schedules torn to shreds by one man’s ability to reach in to our hardwiring and mess with the circuit boards, calling us to attention to watch these agonising tribulations.
Our hearts now find themselves attending weekly support groups, meetings and tuition classes in an effort to re-learn how to avoid cracking over the course of Andy Murray matches. We send them there willingly now though, aware of the fact that it can all end in a press-conference room on the other side of the world when we very least expect it.
As Andy Murray proceeded with the after-match interview, it struck many of the watching that this was the second part of a bookended journey that had begun on this very court with a five setter lost to the Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut three years ago and ended here and now with a five setter won.
Poetry in all of its brutality.