Andy Murray: His recent form and how he can succeed in 2021

Andy Murray will be looking to continue his comeback from his ongoing hip injury in 2021.

In 2017, the hip injury resulted in Murray being unable to sustain his ranking as world #1. He was forced to end his season early after reaching the quarterfinals of Wimbledon.

Andy Murray in Tokyo 2011

Andy Murray on the court (Source: Christopher JohnsonCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Andy Murray opted to undergo hip surgery in January 2018 to improve his tennis. He returned to the tour five months later, winning seven of his twelve matches that season. His quarterfinals appearance at the Citi Open was his most impressive run that year, but it left him emotionally and physically drained. Murray was far from his best.

In January of 2019, Murray underwent further hip surgery, a resurfacing procedure also undergone by doubles specialist Bob Bryan. This surgery was intended to improve both his tennis and his quality of life. He returned in August that year, winning ten of his next fifteen matches, including a remarkable run to the European Open title in Antwerp. He has been unable to put together a run of this calibre in 2020, winning three out of seven matches played.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Murray will squeeze every last drop of potential out of himself before he retires.

Murray’s recovery from hip surgery has had some tragic lows and sporadic highs. His ambitions are no doubt set far beyond winning one 250-level tournament in three years. By analysing the reasons behind his three most recent losses, it is possible to determine how the injury has recently been affecting the former world #1 and what will have to change if Murray is looking to replicate the form of his heyday.

04.09.20 US Open 2nd Round: Felix Auger-Aliassime defeats Murray 6-2 6-3 6-4

If it seemed as though Andy Murray played uncharacteristically in his second-round loss to Felix Auger-Aliassime at this year’s US Open, that was because he was missing his greatest asset. He could not rely upon his return of serve.

The Canadian served up 24 aces, the most aces conceded by Murray in any of his 17 straight-sets losses at a Grand Slam. This is equivalent to a 34% ace rate in 70 service points for Auger-Aliassime. Murray’s career average percentage of aces conceded per match on a hard court is 5.9%; in this loss, he conceded almost six times as many aces as his career average.

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Furthermore, Murray only won 5/46 (11%) of Auger-Aliassime’s first-serve points. His career average of 33.4% on a hard court is more than three times as strong.

The second serve return was not as shocking at 7/22 points won (32%) but still represented a notable dip on his hard court career average of 55.4%.

Murray’s takeaway from this loss is likely how he recovers from his previous matches in the context of a Grand Slam. He had come through a gruelling two-sets to love comeback against Yoshihito Nishioka in the first round a couple of days before. In his on-court interview, Murray had said: “For me, this is an emergency right now, my body hurts… that’s by far the most tennis I’ve played since 2019”.

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Murray was not feeling 100% fit in this match and his normally unrivalled ability to unravel his opponent’s serve duly suffered.Andy murray with his forehand

Andy Murray shows off his forehand (Source: johnwnguyenCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

27.09.20 French Open 1st Round: Stan Wawrinka defeats Murray 6-1 6-3 6-2

Andy Murray’s first-round match against Stan Wawrinka was billed to be the headline act of the 64 first-round matches played at this year’s French Open. The demolition that transpired was difficult to watch.

Murray won only six games throughout the match, his worst loss at a Grand Slam in his career5. Wawrinka owned the court from start to finish, blasting the Scot off the court with his heavy-hitting.

The one thing that should have remained in Murray’s control was his serve. He showed he was physically strong enough to serve at high speeds, matching Wawrinka’s average first service speed at 114mph and maxing out at 123mph. Unfortunately, he was delivering his first serve too infrequently. Murray finished with a dismal first-serve percentage of 35.5%; his career-worst first-service made percentage in Slams.

Andy is likely to create opportunities for himself in any match-up, let alone one he has previously dominated. He will have to clinch these opportunities should he hope to do well in 2021. The more Murray plays at the highest level, the more likely he can redevelop this skill.

For Murray to have any chance of reliving his glory days, he will have to perform at a much higher level on serve. When Murray beat Wawrinka back in 2016 to reach the French Open final, his first serve percentage was 67%, close to double his 2020 appearance rate. If this is a challenging serve percentage for Andy to achieve post-surgery, a realistic benchmark might be his title run in Antwerp last year when he served at 54.3% throughout the tournament. This rate is slightly lower than his career average of 58.1% but is enough for him to feel comfortable on the court.

If Andy wants to get back to winning form, he must make his first serve more than half of the time: in his 46 titles runs, he has served above 50% in every single match.

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13.10.20 Cologne 1st Round: Fernando Verdasco defeats Murray 6-4 6-4

Murray’s first-round match-up against Fernando Verdasco in Cologne may have looked forgiving. He sported a 13-3 head-to-head record against the Spaniard before going into their match. However, he had played him twice since his first surgery and lost on both occasions. Verdasco inevitably extended his streak to three wins in Cologne, winning his sixth consecutive 6-4 set in a row against Murray.

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Despite losing, Murray was still able to play well enough to create opportunities for himself throughout the match. What differed from their previous matches however was how well he performed on these opportunities.

Murray converted 2/11 breakpoints, equivalent to an 18.2% conversion rate. Before surgery, he was converting an average of 38.9% of breakpoints against the Verdasco serve. Murray essentially gifted Verdasco an extra chance to hold serve on every other break point he faced. Additionally, since Murray returned from surgery, he has saved 46.2% of the breakpoints against him. Before surgery, he was saving 67.4% of the breakpoints he faced against Verdasco.

Andy is likely to create opportunities for himself in any match-up, let alone one he has previously dominated. He will have to clinch these opportunities should he hope to do well in 2021. The more Murray plays at the highest level, the more likely he can redevelop this skill.

2015 Australian Open Tennis

Andy Murray at the Australian Open 2015. (Source: Brendan DennisCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

How Murray can succeed in 2021

Murray can still win at the highest level. He beat Stan Wawrinka on his way to the title in Antwerp in 2019. He beat world #7 Alexander Zverev in Cincinatti earlier this year and beat compatriot Dan Evans (ranked #32) in an exhibition match as recently as December 2020.

At his best, he is moving well enough to defeat some of the top players in the world. He is hitting his groundstrokes and serve as hard as ever. At his worst, Murray lacks in areas he would typically excel in. Both his first serve percentage and breakpoint conversion are indicative of his match rustiness. This year, he should be looking to play more rather than fewer matches should he wish to return to the highest level. His out of character performance on the return of serve in New York, however, might suggest he cannot compete as frequently as he would like – he is struggling to recover from difficult matches, particularly over five sets.

It is difficult to say for sure what Murray must do to find success again as his attempted comeback is unprecedented in professional singles tennis. Based on his recent losses, however, striking the balance between peak physical fitness and match practice is as important a factor as any if he wishes to make his presence felt at the Slams next year.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Murray will squeeze every last drop of potential out of himself before he retires. In his own words: “Never. Ever. Give. Up.”

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