Back in January 2019, a practice set against Novak Djokovic in Melbourne marked one of the lowest points of Andy Murray’s career.
In front of thousands of fans, Murray lost 10 of 12 games and was in significant pain due to his ailing hip. The hour Djokovic spent on court felt more like a charitable donation than a meeting between two grand slam champions.
But fast forward four years – and a metal hip later – the pair returned to Wimbledon’s Court 14. In front of several hundred All England Club members and guests – who packed the stands and climbed the stairs to balconies overlooking the small court – Murray was back to being able to compete.
Even fellow major champion Stan Wawrinka stopped momentarily on the player balcony, to take in the sight of these former rivals grinding it out on opposite sides of the court again.
Murray won the practice set convincingly 6-2 and was up 2-1 when they ran out of time. As a precursor to the biggest tournament of the season, it felt good.
“I did well in the practice,” he said grinning, speaking to reporters. “The last time we practiced together was at Laver Cup [last September]. Before then, it had been quite a long time. I can’t remember exactly what it was. It was, yeah, maybe in Australia when I was having the issues with my hip. I think it was probably then was the last time.
“Where I am today in comparison to where I was then is night and day, just from a mental perspective, my enjoyment of the game, and how I’m still able to compete with those guys.
Two-time champion Murray, 36, begins his Wimbledon campaign against fellow Briton Ryan Peniston on Tuesday. Considering his career arc, it is remarkable he is here at all.
In 2019, he even apologised to a fan on social media for putting on such a poor showing in that practise session with Djokovic. A few days later he limped out of the Australian Open in a five-setter to Roberto Bautisto Agut, and cried during his press conference, speculating about whether it marked the end of his career.
It has been a long road back to this level. While Djokovic, 36, has won nine major titles in the time since that practice, Murray has undergone career-threatening hip resurfacing surgery, and spent years grafting his way up the rankings to 39 in the world now, including via lower level events.
“I’m happy to be in that position still, I really enjoyed it,” Murray said of his recovery. “We used to practice together quite a lot actually. A lot of the top players, certainly I never practiced with Roger after 2007. Rafa I would practice with sometimes, but I don’t think Rafa and Novak really ever trained with each other. Yeah, me and Novak always practiced with each other even when we were competing for Grand Slams and stuff. It was nice to be back on the court
Murray is on the opposite side of the draw to Djokovic, so will not face him again this fortnight unless they both reach the final.
It will be a huge boost of confidence regardless though, building on a positive few weeks where he won two Challenger titles in Surbiton and Nottingham. But a grand slam is a completely different challenge, and he has not been beyond the third round at one since Wimbledon 2017.
He is arguably in the best shape he has been in since winning the title here in 2016, when he coincidentally also faced a Brit – Liam Broady – in the first round.
Asked whether he considered the symmetry a good omen, Murray joked: “Brilliant. Great. Can we start celebrating now?”
He added: “I want to go out there and perform at a level that I’m happy with. I do feel like I’m in a really, really good position to do that. I have the experience at this tournament. Playing on the big courts. There’s only one player in the draw that has more experience of playing here than me, which is Novak.
“Certainly [I] will be one of the only players that’s won against him here, as well. I need to use that to my advantage and use my experience to my advantage and take confidence from that. I do believe I’m one of the best grass court players in the world, and I’m physically feeling really good. I prepared well, so there’s no reason why I can’t have a good tournament.”