Even after so many enthralling Centre Court nights under the lights, Andy Murray still finds fresh ways to entice and delight. He was at it again in the fourth set of a lively match against Australian James Duckworth, throwing in an underarm serve for the first time in his 14 Wimbledon singles appearances down the years.
The crowd purred. Murray smiled. But while it only brought him a solitary point, it emphasised a far wider one: that he has more tricks in his locker than at any time since his career nearly ended in 2017.
The impression was reinforced by the post-match statistics which showed Murray hit 35 winners and just 14 unforced errors on the way to beating Duckworth 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
He knows time is short, at age 35, to make another deep run in the tournament he loves most. But if he can get past the 20th seed John Isner in the second round on Wednesday, you wouldn’t put it past him. “I am getting on a bit now,” said Murray. “I don’t know how many opportunities I will get here so I want to make the most of it every time.”
Towards the end, in particular, there were echoes of vintage Murray: particularly in the way he moved Duckworth around the court, teasing and testing, before applying the kill. And then there was that underarm serve, which his opponent could only scoop up in the air, allowing Murray an easy kill.
“Well, he changed his return position,” explained Murray. “That’s why I did it. He was standing very close to return. He was struggling a little bit on the first-serve return, so he stepped probably two metres further back. As soon as I saw him step further back, I threw the underarm serve in.
“I personally have no issue with players using it. I never have. The underarm serve is a way of saying: ‘If you’re going to step back there, then I’m going to possibly throw that in.’”
Afterwards Murray accepted that he was no longer the same player he was when he last lifted the Wimbledon jug in 2016. Even so, he looks far fitter since linking back up with his old coach Ivan Lendl earlier this year – a fact reinforced by victories over Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios in Stuttgart earlier this month.
Encouragingly, he showed no signs of the stomach strain he suffered that put his Wimbledon appearance in doubt. “It felt fine, to be honest,” he said. “The last few days when I’ve been serving was fine. I went to get a scan, an ultrasound scan on it on Saturday after my practice just to see how it was progressing. It was all clear for the first time on the scans, which is really positive.”
Murray was also happy with the way he recovered after going a set down to Duckworth, who played far better than his world ranking of 74 suggested. “I did well to regroup after the first set,” he said. “He likes to play on the grass. Once I managed to find my returns, I felt more comfortable.”
He also knew that Duckworth had run hot in that opening set, hitting 14 winners to 10 unforced errors. The question was, could it last?
Slowly we got our answer: no. Murray’s serving noticeably improved in the second set, giving him a platform to attack. And at 3-2 on serve, he produced a defensive masterclass after earning breakpoint before his opponent finally strayed into the tramlines. Further mistakes soon followed as Murray confidently took the second set 6-3.
Suddenly Centre Court was carrying echoes of some of Murray’s glory days. The Pimm’s-soaked crowd living every point. The urgent chants of “Come on Andy”. Only old stone-face himself, Lendl, sat unmoved in the players’ box.
But when Murray quickly secured the third set 6-2 it was enough to impress even Lendl, who applauded along with the rest of Murray’s box.
Then came a 10-minute delay, while the roof came across the court and the lights were turned on, but Murray was not to be denied. The fourth set went with serve until he broke in the ninth game – before sealing the match in the next.
“I did well to get through,” he said. “There is always nerves and pressure and butterflies and stress before the first round. It was great to get a win under my belt.”
However he knows stiffer tasks await – starting with Isner, who hit 54 aces in his match. “I’m in a better place than I was last year when I played here,” added Murray. “In terms of like pain, certainly in a better place than I was in 2017 when I played here.
“I don’t know about having a deep run or not. I’ve got a pretty tricky match in the next round against Isner. I’ll need to be on it for that.”