Should we be worried about Andy Murray? The Australian Open first round could provide us the answer
A practice match with Novak Djokovic proved to be a sobering affair for Andy Murray in Melbourne – is this the beginning of the end for the former world number one?
With the Australian Open starting on Eurosport from Monday, supporters in Melbourne were handed an early treat when Djokovic and Murray graced the Margaret Court Arena on Thursday.
The pair have traded blows 36 times competitively, including in all four Grand Slam finals, but it was a distressing sight to see Murray come forward and shake hands with Djokovic, trailing 6-1 4-1 and having held serve just once in their friendly warm-up match.
" I'm sorry I couldn't be more entertaining today - thanks for the support. "
An apologetic Murray must brush off this disappointing practice match and focus on a first-round meeting with Roberto Bautista Agut.
So could Murray’s season hinge on this match? What positive signs are there for the three-time Grand Slam champion? Or is he edging ever-closer to retirement? We take a look…
Novak Djokovic of Serbia talks with Andy Murray of Great BritainGetty Images
‘Movement worse than at the US Open’
“Tough and sad to watch” were the words of The Times’ Stuart Fraser, who witnessed the Djokovic-Murray match first-hand.
Fraser also pointed out the duo were scheduled to come off at that time, meaning Murray was not forfeiting or retiring early at 4-1 down in the second set. However, there were few positives to cling on to, with Fraser adding that Murray’s movement looks worse than it did at last year’s US Open.
So what are the positives?
The trio have all battled back from serious injuries and achieved Grand Slam glory once more. Djokovic went from elbow surgery in February 2018 and ended the year a Wimbledon and US Open champion, as well as regaining the No 1 spot.
Nadal has persistently fought off problems throughout his career, most notably bouncing back from a 2016 slump – in which he skipped Wimbledon due to a wrist injury – to reach the 2017 Australian Open final and then win both the French Open and US Open.
And finally, Federer. The 20-time Grand Slam champion famously missed the last six months of 2016 due to a knee injury before returning and beating Nadal to lift the Australian Open trophy, before adding another Wimbledon and then another Australian Open crown in 2018.
Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray have pushed one another for more than a decade, and it is arguably the return to riches of the first three that has driven Murray to battle back from this near career-ending injury.
Murray’s hip problems seemingly run deeper than those issues suffered by Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, but he can also be his own inspiration, having recovered from back surgery at the tail-end of 2013 to reach at least the quarter-final in every Grand Slam the following year.
Age was on his side on that occasion. Now, the 31-year-old is not finding it so easy to recuperate, but there can be no denying his spirit remains.
Murray will not go without a fight, and he will continue to brush off retirement talk until his body tells him enough is enough.
"You want to go out on your own terms," he said last month.
"If I decided to stop six months ago, having not played or gotten back to a level where I can compete again, I would have looked back and regretted that.
" I owed it to myself to give myself the best possible shot to get back to a level I was happy with. I am able to compete at a high level, but I have to back it up a few days in a row. That's the challenge."
Aware he is not back to his previously lofty level, the bar of expectation has been lowered, while every point will be scrutinised heavily in his match against Bautista Agut…
Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut poses with the trophy after winning the ATP Qatar Open tennis final match against Czech Republic's Tomas Berdych (unseen) in Doha on January 5, 2019.Getty Images
Make-or-break first-round match?
Should Murray the overcome 22nd seed, then he would face either John Millman or Federico Delbonis in the second round, and potentially Karen Khachanov in the third.
But, one step at a time.
The positives – Murray has a 3-0 record against Bautista Agut, and has never dropped a set against the Spaniard, last winning 7-6 6-1 at the Shanghai final three years ago.
With Bautista Agut in form and Murray struggling – having also recently lost to Daniil Medvedev in the Brisbane International round of 16 – the former will be deemed favourite when the pair go head to head for a fourth time,
However, when Murray walks out at Melbourne Park – a place where he has won 48 matches – there is every possibility that a douse of rousing support could inspire him to victory, while one moment of magic early on could reinvigorate the Scot.
After all, why not? In a sport where momentum can switch in the swing of a racket, Murray need not head into the match a retired man walking.