Andy Murray Returns to Singles Tennis With a Loss and Some Sweet Flashbacks

MASON, Ohio — Andy Murray stepped back into the fray of singles tennis on Monday, seven months after he seemed ready to bid farewell to the sport.

Dusting off a game coated with rust, Murray lost to Richard Gasquet, 6-4, 6-4, in the first round of the Cincinnati Masters but showed flashes of the ability that had taken him to the No. 1 ranking and three Grand Slam titles.

“I don’t really know what I was expecting, to be honest,” said Murray, who announced after the loss that he would not play singles at the United States Open, which begins on Aug. 26. “I think I did O.K. I think there was a lot of things I would like to have done better in the match, but, you know, you also have to be somewhat realistic, as well, in terms of what you can expect in terms of how you actually play and hit the ball.”

Monday’s singles match was the first for Murray, 32, since the Australian Open in January, when his five-set loss to Roberto Bautista Agut was treated as a swan song.

But after a hip-resurfacing operation in January, Murray began working his way back. He played doubles in five tournaments this summer and began playing practice sets in singles with other top players while he competed in doubles in Washington and Montreal.

The U.S. Open’s wild card entries are set to be announced Tuesday, but Murray decided early not to request one. He plans to play doubles, though, both men’s and mixed.

“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,” he said. “I felt like I wanted to be fair, to maybe try and get a couple of matches in before making a decision like that.”

Murray could have tried to secure a wild card and decided later whether to withdraw, either to be replaced by an alternate or a lucky loser. He also could have entered four weeks ago using a protected ranking.

But Murray suggested that his relatively early decision to not play singles at the U.S. Open — where he won the singles title in 2012 — was hastened by what happened two years ago, when his late withdrawal from the tournament was criticized for leaving the men’s draw badly unbalanced — and ultimately devoid of top-10 players by the fourth round.

After fielding constant questions about his health in recent years, Murray was wary of making more news.

“I know if I would have taken the wild card and then not played, then I would have been getting loads of questions about my hip: ‘Why has he turned it down? Is something wrong? What’s the problem?’” he said. “That didn’t feel right to me.”

The rebirth of Murray’s singles career on Monday seemed to bring his tennis back to its nascent form. Instead of engaging in the pounding play that helped him grind his way to the No. 1 ranking, Murray opted for the creative off-speed shots, drop shots and lobs that he used to break onto the world stage as a teen.

He wasn’t always ready to fully engage in those points, however, letting several Gasquet drop shots fall uncontested. Murray admitted after the match that while he had been in pain he had developed a “bad habit” of not running down every ball in hopes of preserving his deteriorating hip.

“At the end I did start reacting and I actually got to some pretty difficult shots, so that was good,” Murray said. “But that wasn’t the case at the beginning of the match.”

As the match wore on, Murray found his range on his return, long the strength of his game, and pushed Gasquet in two marathon return games midway through the second set, including one with a vintage running forehand crosscourt winner.

He also excoriated himself with exasperated shouts of “Why?” and “Andy!” after frustrating misses, all of which must have reminded Gasquet of how Murray had been one of his most formidable opponents.

“He could break me many times in the second set — so even with this, he’s still a great competitor,” Gasquet said. “That’s why you’re still scared when you face him, you know? I know it’s still Andy Murray. So with his return, with his mind, you know everything can happen.”

Gasquet ultimately closed out the victory on a Murray backhand that zipped wide on the first match point.

Considering his lack of match play while dealing with his hip issues, Murray was able to put the loss in perspective.

“It’s not like I just haven’t not played a match for seven months; I hardly played before then, either,” he said. “I haven’t played many matches in the last 18 months really. 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 to where I want to get is going to take a lot of time and a lot more work.”

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