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Home » Andy Murray is playing the Australian Open with a metal hip. It’s ‘uncharted territory.’

Andy Murray is playing the Australian Open with a metal hip. It’s ‘uncharted territory.’

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It’s impressive enough that Andy Murray, at age 35, was able to grind through five sets Tuesday at the Australian Open, the last two of which required tiebreakers, and emerge with his first win over a top-20 opponent in a Grand Slam event since 2017.

That he did so with a metal hip, though, puts him in “uncharted territory.”

That’s how Bob Bryan puts it, and the American doubles great should know: Murray made the drastic decision to undergo a hip resurfacing operation in 2019 after seeing it work for Bryan. The relatively untested procedure has allowed Murray to enjoy a far happier moment at the Australian Open than he did four years ago, when the British tennis icon shed tears while telling reporters that chronic hip pain left him only faint hope that he might make it to Wimbledon that year before calling it a career.

On Tuesday, after outlasting No. 13 seed Matteo Berrettini, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-7 (9-7), 7-6 (10-6), in a first-round battle that lasted more than 4½ hours, Murray said at a post-match news conference he was “really impressed with myself.” He added: “I’m hard on myself, usually, but tonight I need to give myself credit.”

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To Bryan, it was “really amazing to see his body withstand such a beating.”

“A five-set match on a hard court — there’s nothing like it, the amount of stress that the body is put under,” the retired 44-year-old said of Murray, who leaned on Bryan for advice about the procedure. “So I was really happy to see him hold up. I know he’s put in a ton of work.”

At his news conference, Murray, who plays again in the second round Thursday, acknowledged that “these last few years have been tough.” The unhappy stretch began in 2017, when a long-standing but previously manageable hip issue led to visible discomfort at Wimbledon as the British star — who won the tournament the year before for his third major singles title — was unable to defend his crown.

Murray then began withdrawing from tournaments and eventually pulled the plug altogether on the rest of the 2017 season, tumbling along the way from his No. 1 ranking to as low as 839th in less than a year. He underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his hip in January 2018 and was out of action until June, when he played in a pair of Wimbledon tuneup events in England. With a “heavy heart,” though, Murray withdrew from tennis’s marquee event, saying then it was too soon for him to compete in five-set matches.

The 2018 Citi Open in Washington brought his first winning streak in more than a year, but the succession of late-night, three-set matches left an exhausted Murray in tears courtside and needing to withdraw again. Murray shut it down that September after a tournament in China and was next seen the following January in Melbourne, where he said with emotion after a first-round loss at the 2019 Australian Open, “If this was my last match … it was an amazing way to end the game.” He went on to tell fans that if he were to return, he would “need a big operation, and there are no guarantees to come back from it.”

There was indeed no assurance that a hip resurfacing — which at the time had put Bryan back on the court in Australia five months after he underwent the procedure in August 2018 — would work for Murray. The surgery, first developed in 1997 and similar to a total hip replacement (THR) but with some key differences, had previously been used on a handful of professional athletes in other sports but without yielding a major, long-term success story. The NHL’s Ed Jovanovski underwent the procedure in 2013 before his career ended in 2015 at age 38. NBA player Tiago Splitter had the surgery in 2016 and, within two years, announced his retirement at age 33. Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals has just begun what he and the team hope is a stirring comeback.

“When you get to the point where you need a hip resurfacing, that’s basically end-stage arthritis of your hip,” Alexis Colvin, a New York-based orthopedic surgeon, said Tuesday. The chief medical officer for the U.S. Open and the team physician for the U.S. Billie Jean King Cup squad, Colvin noted that compared with less invasive arthroscopy, hip resurfacing is “a much bigger surgery, in terms of the fact that it is open and you are going through layers of tissue and muscle.”

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Whereas THR replaces the ball-and-socket interface at the top of the femur with artificial components, which can include plastic, ceramic and metal materials, resurfacing keeps more of the femur intact, instead placing a rounded metal cap over the head of the bone and lining the socket with a metal shell.

As Edwin Su, the surgeon who performed Bryan’s resurfacing, explained in an essay about Murray, the procedure can be preferable to THR for younger patients because retaining a greater portion of the femur can make subsequent hip surgeries, if needed, more viable. An additional benefit for athletes, Su wrote, is that resurfacing leaves them with a larger implanted ball than does THR, which in turn can provide “greater stability” for the rigors of professional sports.

Bryan was the first professional tennis player to get a resurfacing and return to top-level play, but he was barely back in action before Murray made his decision to try to follow the same path. At this point, Bryan has more in common with Jovanovski and Splitter, given that he and his twin brother, Mike, with whom he won 16 Grand Slam doubles titles (in addition to another seven mixed doubles wins), ended their tennis careers in August 2020.

A full four years after his hip resurfacing, Murray may only be getting stronger.

“He’s really kind of pushed the limits of what the results of this surgery can have,” said Bryan, who said that compared with doubles, Murray is placing “an exponential amount of more stress on that [hip] area” in singles matches.

“He’s in uncharted territory, for sure,” Bryan said. “There’s no guinea pig out there who’s done the same amount of work, so I guess he’s the test monkey for this.”

Those comments echoed remarks Murray made in 2019, when he said that he “wouldn’t have given it a go” if not for Bryan, who for Murray was “like my guinea pig.”

Bryan said that when he was initially discussing the surgery with Murray and was trying to be realistic about what kind of recovery could be expected, he asked Murray “if he’d be happy being 100th in the world.”

“I thought he’d say no, coming from two gold medals and two Wimbledons,” Bryan continued, “but he said: ‘I’d be really happy. I just want to play.’ ”

Following his breakthrough win over Berrettini, though, Murray sounded more like a former champion frustrated at his inability to climb back into the elite tier. After limited matches in 2019 and 2020 and spending 2021 ranked in the triple digits, Murray whittled that down to 43rd by September of last year but failed to climb any higher, and he arrived in Melbourne ranked No. 66.

“The last few years, I’ve certainly questioned myself at times,” he said Tuesday. “There’s certainly a lot of people who questioned me and my ability, and whether I could still perform at the biggest events and the biggest matches. I felt very proud of myself after the [Berrettini] match, and that’s not something that I generally felt over the years at the end of tennis matches.”

The mechanics of resurfacing may lead to eventual complications, warned Colvin, who pointed to “some concern” about the possibility of tiny metal particles eventually breaking off, entering the bloodstream and being filtered through the kidneys. Bits of metal could also trigger a “very rare” but not unthinkable allergic reaction.

“He has metal in the hip,” she said, “so even though the pain is gone, there’s still consideration for the fact that now there’s an implant there, and it’s two metal surfaces rubbing against each other.”

“Anyone who cares about Andy,” said Bryan, “probably worries about how long the implant will last.”

For now, Murray’s main concern is keeping his momentum and advancing past the Australian Open’s second round. Having dispatched Berrettini, he could have an easier time Thursday with 159th-ranked Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia.

Bryan said the way Murray served against Berrettini boded well for the Scot’s chances in the tournament.

“He was changing the pace incredibly. He wasn’t letting Berrettini get into a rhythm,” Bryan said. “He was using his slice very well, and no one, maybe only Novak [Djokovic], returns better than Andy. So if he’s serving like that, with his return, he can be a threat to go deep — if he’s feeling good physically.

“There’s no one with more heart,” he continued, “than Andy Murray.”

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