Andy Murray suffered a straight-sets defeat to Kyle Edmund at Eastbourne on Wednesday as the two-time Wimbledon champion continued to build his fitness after 11 months out.
Edmund has succeeded Murray as British number one during the Scot’s lengthy injury-enforced absence, and the 23-year-old’s growing authority was clear throughout a 6-4, 6-4 victory in the second round of the Nature Valley International.
The 31-year-old last week began his comeback when he lost to world number 19 Nick Kyrgios at Queen’s Club. He followed that by overcoming Stan Wawrinka on Monday in straight sets, but, if that suggested he had cause for optimism, his performance against Edmund offered a reality check.
Murray then refused to commit to competing at the All England Club from Monday, and against Edmund he showed little that would equip him for up to five sets against some of the world’s best.
He will move up from 156 to 147 in the world rankings, but will be more concerned with the inconsistency of his serve. A double fault at the very start contributed to an early break for Edmund, and the Johannesburg-born player then rescued three break points to establish a 2-0 lead.
Murray temporarily showed signs of improvement through several aces, but, after Edmund earned two set-points with a fine backhand winner and then converted the first, the three-time grand slam winner’s struggles increased.
In the second set he dropped his serve again to go 3-2 down, after a double fault and on Edmund’s fourth break point.
After being broken again to go 5-2 down, Murray impressively responded to claw it back to 5-4, but a further winner from the powerful Edmund secured two match-points and he duly secured victory with a passing shot.
Heading into this match, Murray had won each of his two previous matches against Edmund – and had not lost to a compatriot since a 2006 defeat to Tim Henman.
Djokovic was closing in on his first title for 12 months after clinching a match point in the second set.
However, the 31-year-old wasted that opportunity and ruined another one after taking a 4-1 lead in the second set tie-break to eventually lose the match 5-7, 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 .
“I wouldn’t say I’m a contender, you know, for a (Wimbledon) trophy or anything like that,” Djokovic was quoted as saying by AFP.
Novak Djokovic will be a top 12 seed at Wimbledon, which means he can't face Federer, Nadal, Zverev or Cilic before the QFs.— José Morgado (@josemorgado) June 23, 2018
The Wimbledon starts on July 2 and the Serbian has just about one a week to get back on track. Djokovic said he is not at the level he needs to be for success at Wimbledon.
“I have to keep my expectations very low, considering my results in the last 12 months,” he said.
“I think everyone will agree that Roger is the number one favourite. But Cilic is right up there next to him.”
However, Djokovic insisted he retains the desire to compete at the highest level.
“It’s what I’m playing for. Obviously I am here right after coming from the court, speaking to you guys, and I’m not going to be ecstatic about losing a final.”
Andy Murray will step onto the tennis court at Queen’s Club on Tuesday for his first competitive match in 342 days.
Eleven long months have passed since the last time we saw him in action, that being a five-set quarter-final exit to American Sam Querrey at Wimbledon last year.
The Scot’s troublesome and long-term right hip injury forced his 2017 campaign to come to a premature end after that.
Wear and tear caught up with a man who, let’s not forget, was World No1 at the time and had to fight tooth and nail for it, over-playing in the latter part of 2016, to reach the summit of men’s tennis for the first occasion in his career.
In a sense, after that, a natural slump was always going to come for the then 30-year-old but he could not have foreseen what was coming, even though he has become accustomed to long spells on the sidelines before.
An enforced break from tennis, post-Wimbledon and between July 2017 and December of the same year, should have helped him solve his chronic hip pain but that unfortunately didn’t prove to be the case.
Murray tried to muster up a return at this year’s Australian Open in January but realised the only solution to rid himself of the problem – and take a gamble at that – was to have surgery on his hip in Melbourne.
The road back since has felt long, if only a matter of months in 2018, with several false downs where the three-time major winner looked like returning sooner than his scheduled appearance in west London this week.
Murray, who faces the mercurial and unpredictable Nick Kyrgios – a great friend of his – in his opening match, has “zero expectations” about how he moves forward from here and with SW19 on the horizon next month.
He is definitely right to play down his return, given he has dropped down to 157 in the men’s rankings and only made a last-minute call to play at Queen’s minutes before the draw was made.
Indeed, the fact he decided to play Queen’s based on how well he felt getting up in the morning after playing back-to-back practice sets with Brit Cameron Norrie spoke volumes and is not the best sign of where he is at.
Andy Murray is back!
— Fever-Tree Championships (@QueensTennis) June 16, 2018
Keeping expectations low is a good thing, but it is worrying he has revealed he still experiences hip pain. Moving forward, that will be tough for him to contend with mentally, especially on grass – a surface notorious for its slippy nature early on in tournament play.
With all that said, if one sportsman was to complete a miraculous comeback and get back to his best, it would be Murray. He is a man who prides himself on complete professionalism.
If Murray cannot come back, then who can? When you factor in the superb physical and technical support team he has always had working with him, it goes to show how difficult the journey back is, whoever you are.
As we have seen with Novak Djokovic, with the Serb also having had surgery this year – on his elbow, post-30, the slide can be quick and brutal in tennis even if you are on the match court.
Results haven’t gone to plan for him and Djokovic is in a difficult place about where he goes from here. However, for starters, Murray will see him at Queen’s along with Stan Wawrinka who also features in a stacked draw.
The evergreen Roger Federer, who turns 37 in August, is at his vintage best physically and along with Rafael Nadal has gobbled up the past six Grand Slams between them, so in a sense, Murray has to keep believing that his best is not behind him.
Federer is a freak in the case of how he has stayed virtually injury-free but he has benefitted from a low-impact, seamless playing style – Murray, Djokovic and Nadal haven’t had that luxury.
It would be great to see Murray mimic that of a Federer and enjoy and upturn in fortunes during the latter stages of what has been a remarkable career, in which he has virtually nothing left to prove.
It is not time to judge where he is at yet, nor after Queen’s. He needs several more months before the jury can be truly out. Still, Murray faces a huge uphill task.
In his absence on tour, the likes of Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov have yet to step up and win majors, which will give the 31-year-old hope there is still a chance for him to use his experience to effect in the second-half of the season.
The tendency is always to look ahead in sports and at what’s next. In Murray’s case, it feels like his return to the court should be savoured and the emphasis on how he pulls up short-term.