Despite loss, Andy Murray makes great strides in singles return

MASON, Ohio -- After losing the first set 6-4 and dropping the opening game of the second on Center Court on Monday, Andy Murray puffed his cheeks, let out an audible sigh and shook his head vigorously. While his game showed signs of rust, his on-court demeanor and trademark exasperated mannerisms were in vintage form.

Facing what appeared to be almost an inevitable retirement after dealing with chronic hip pain for several years, Murray underwent surgery following a tearful and emotional news conference at the Australian Open in January with his future very much in doubt. After returning to doubles earlier in the summer, the 32-year-old Scotsman surprised fans by announcing he would be returning to singles play this week at the Cincinnati Open.

He ultimately lost to Richard Gasquet 6-4, 6-4 in the first round, but, despite his clear frustration at times and occasional struggles in getting to the ball, he looked genuinely happy to be back -- hugging various members of his team before taking the court and even smiling at its conclusion as he shook Gasquet's hand and approached the umpire. As he walked back to the locker room to a loud ovation from the crowd, Murray stopped to sign dozens of autographs for excited young fans.

"I'm very aware that there are many people out there that have been in way worse situations than me, but tennis is something I have done my whole life, so it's something that is kind of all I have known as an adult," Murray said after the match. "It's all I have worked [for] to be a professional tennis player for my whole life. So when I wasn't able to do that and didn't know whether I was going to be able to come back and play, that was hard. It was difficult for me.

"But a few months after I had the operation in January, that kind of changed, you know, my mentality changed a lot because I wasn't in pain anymore. And I was always worried: What will I do with myself without tennis? But actually, once I got rid of the pain, I realized I didn't really, I didn't need tennis -- tennis wasn't the most important thing for me. I'm obviously happy to be back playing."

But, make no mistake: Though Murray was happy to be back, he wasn't happy to lose, as perhaps demonstrated by his sighs, head shakes and even a "What was that?" yell at himself after hitting a ball out of bounds. He later confessed he was upset about the match's outcome but almost relieved to be feeling that way.

"I thought it maybe would have changed my perspective completely on things, but I'm sitting here disappointed, which I think is probably a good thing, and if I want to get back to playing at a high level, if I was sort of just happy to be back on the court and, you know, not really worried about the outcome, then I'd be a bit maybe concerned about that," he said. "But I feel a bit disappointed. I feel I can do better, and there is lots of things I can work on, so I will go away and do that and hopefully be better next time."

The former world No. 1 and three-time Grand Slam champion made his doubles return at the Queen's Club, and won the title with partner Feliciano Lopez. The two are teaming up again this week in Cincinnati. Determined to play at Wimbledon, his home Slam at which he is a beloved two-time singles champion, Murray teamed up with Pierre-Hugues Herbert and lost in the second round. He famously paired up with Serena Williams in the mixed doubles event, as well.

He played coy for most of the summer about his return to singles action and announced his comeback just days ago. However, he has been insistent throughout his return that he is no longer experiencing any pain, and it seemed like it was just a matter of time.

Perhaps due to a lack of match experience, or simply a case of nerves after such a lengthy absence, Murray struggled initially on Monday. He was broken in the first game and was a point away from falling into a 3-0 deficit to start the match. However, he fought his way back and rattled off the next three games. But, after 1 hour, 37 minutes of battling, he ultimately didn't seem to have anything left. It was Gasquet's first win over Murray since 2012 and his fourth victory in 12 meetings overall.

Murray said he felt sluggish at times Monday, but cited a lack of play, and not any signs of a lingering injury.

"I think physically, you know, my legs were a little bit heavy at the end of the match in comparison to maybe what they normally would be if you played, you know, a bunch," he said. "The first game, I felt quite nervous. It was, at the first couple of games, it was actually pretty windy at the beginning. It was fine sort of midway through the first set, but right at the beginning it was pretty breezy, and I just felt a bit unsure of myself at the beginning and played a poor game to get broken.

"It's going to take time, and I haven't been practicing lots of singles until recently. So I need time, and it's not going to come back in one week or one tournament. ... It's been a long process to get here, but to get back maybe to where I want to get is going to take a lot of time and a lot more work."

With roller coasters at nearby King's Island amusement park seen in the distance behind Center Court, the crowd seemed to audibly rise and fall for Murray's every point and every missed opportunity. With a Scottish flag being waved during breaks in the action, his pal Nick Kyrgios there rooting him on and constant, "Come on, Andy!" and "You can do it, Andy!" cheers, the crowd seemed grateful for his efforts.

Currently ranked No. 324 in the world (and No. 110 in doubles), it's clear Murray has a lot of work to do if he wants to get back to his Grand Slam-winning form, but he seems committed to giving this return everything he has. Many speculated he might take a wild card to play at the upcoming US Open, but he announced at his news conference after Monday's match that he would be playing only doubles and mixed doubles in New York.

"I'm not going to play the US Open singles. You know, we were hoping to maybe hold a wild card until a little bit close to the time to see how I feel and get some matches hopefully and a bit of practice, but they were announcing the wild cards today and didn't want to wait. [It's] a decision I made with my team, I didn't want to take a wild card today because I just didn't know how I was going to feel after a match. I felt like I wanted to be fair for me to, you know, maybe try and get a couple of matches in before making a decision like that.

"But I'll maybe play Winston-Salem potentially, but I'll probably look at just playing doubles and mixed doubles. That's what I will do at the US Open."

Murray said he didn't know whom he would be playing with in either doubles event and indicated he wished he had more time in making a decision in accepting a wild card.

It seemed clear he did not want to get ahead of himself about anything related to tennis, but Gasquet, his opponent on Monday, didn't hesitate when asked about Murray's future.

"He's only at the beginning," Gasquet said. "You know, he has a lot of steps to come back as before. But I think he can, feeling honestly, he will do it. I'm sure about it. He's still one of the best players. He's playing great. The return, as I said, the serve -- he's still one of the best in the world."