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At 35, Andy Murray battles on, driven by love of tennis and hard work

Three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray will play in the Citi Open in Washington. The first round of the tournament starts Monday. (Maansi Srivastava/The Washington Post)

Having earned more than $62 million in winnings and been knighted by Prince Charles, Andy Murray need not achieve another sporting feat for kin or country in his lifetime.

Yet here is Sir Andy in Washington yet again, sweating through shirt after shirt amid stultifying humidity, berating himself during a two-hour practice Friday in the run-up to the Citi Open each time he blasted a service return over the baseline or into the net.

“I love this sport,” Murray said when asked what compels him to continue competing at 35 despite a surgically repaired hip with a metal implant. “That’s essentially why I am back and why I wanted to keep going: because I love the sport.”

Tennis has given Murray everything, as he put it in a wide-ranging interview, a towel draped around his neck as he sat on the metal bleachers of a court at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center after practice. The first round of the tournament is Monday.

A Glasgow native, he traveled to America for the first time at age 11, he recalled. He got to visit South America, too. And at 15, he moved to Spain to train at an academy.

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“I absolutely loved that — learning about different cultures and meeting new people and having some independence,” Murray said.

Tennis introduced him to his future wife, Kim Sears, with whom he has four children — three girls and a boy aged 1 to 6.

It also brought trophies and triumphs he does not enumerate — among them, three Grand Slam titles, two Olympic singles golds and the distinction of being the only man to break the chokehold that Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal held on the world No. 1 ranking for 18 years, from February 2004 to February 2022. Murray also restored a nation’s sporting pride in becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years in 2013 and again in 2016.

But recent years have been difficult, marked by injury and often debilitating pain.

After dropping outside the top 800 in 2018 and undergoing a second hip surgery in 2019, Murray confronted the prospect of life without the sport he had played since age 3.

At 31, he wasn’t ready for that.

“Tennis has given me an amazing life,” Murray said. “It has also given me a purpose each day. There is a routine because you’re always trying to improve yourself and get better at something. I enjoy that process.”

So he committed to the long slog back, convinced that if he could overcome the injuries, he was capable of playing great tennis again.

At 6-foot-3 and a lean 181 pounds, Murray is wiser now about managing his body. His training — both on court and in the gym — is less about logging hours of ball-striking and power sets and more about targeted, purposeful work.

“Probably could have done with a bit more of that when I was younger,” he mused.

As for his strengths, Murray boasts deft touch and a wide repertoire of shots, including a rock-steady two-handed backhand, trusty slice and volleys, effective serve and, in his prime, an even better return.

He has always been a savvy tactician, son of Scottish tennis coach Judy Murray.

“In terms of tennis management, he is outstanding,” said former player Brad Gilbert, who coached Murray in 2006-07. “He has great knowledge of what he does as a player and what his opponent does.”

To that base, Murray has added data and analytics, crediting his off-again, on-again coach, Ivan Lendl, the Czech-born former No. 1, with introducing that element to his game.

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“He doesn’t talk lots,” Murray said of Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam champion with whom Murray won his three majors. “He gives quite simple messaging and doesn’t overcomplicate things. But he is into data and analysis, which I am interested in, too. And he’s a hard worker by nature and obviously knows the amount of hours and effort it takes to get to the top of the game.”

Murray had long considered the serve and return-of-serve the most important shots in the game.

The latter was once a strength but has let him down of late. During Friday’s practice against Arlington native Denis Kudla, it was to blame for considerable frustration and more than one expletive.

The issue, Murray explained afterward, is that as players have gotten bigger and stronger over the past six years, the first serve has become more of a weapon. Not surprisingly, the tour-wide percentage of return-games won has dropped 2 or 3 percent from what it was in 2016.

In Murray’s case, he confessed, the drop has been precipitous — down 14 percent.

“If I can change that and I can improve that, then that, over time, should make a big difference to my results on the court,” Murray said.

He has brought a similar analytical bent to broadening his perspective on issues off the court.

He wasn’t particularly outspoken as a rising star in his 20s, nor was he particularly informed. “Being perfectly honest,” he said, “I was in my own tennis bubble and was not really focused on anything else.”

Today, Murray is regarded as a statesman of the game, willing to use his platform to advocate for causes he believes in, such as the need for a domestic-violence policy on the men’s tour, equal opportunity and pay for female athletes, racial and social justice, and the importance of vaccines amid the pandemic.

In March, Murray announced he would donate his prize money for the year to UNICEF’s program to help the children of Ukraine. Citi Open chairman Mark Ein announced Saturday that the tournament would match whatever amount Murray won in Washington and create an online portal for tennis fans to contribute.

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“What is happening in Ukraine is horrifying,” Murray said. “You can never put yourself exactly in their shoes; I’m aware of that. But it must be absolutely terrifying, heartbreaking and scary. I wanted to do something, and the only thing I can probably offer is to give money to try and help the children that are being displaced from their families.”

Murray traces his awakening to working with Amelie Mauresmo, the former No. 1 whom he hired as his coach in 2014, and the skepticism and double standard he encountered as a result of hiring a female coach.

“Amelie was number one in the world and a great player, and a lot of the men I’ve worked with [as coaches] were nowhere near that,” Murray said. “But if I lost a match, nobody ever asked whether it was because of a [male] coach, whereas when I started working with Amelie and I lost, the questions were ‘Do you feel like she’s the right person?’ A lot of people on TV were saying, ‘Oh, he needs to change coaches.’ Even people within my own team, I stopped working with them because it was a problem for them as well.

“It made me realize that there is a problem there on that topic. And it was something that opened my eyes to other things. So I just felt like, when I saw what I perceived as injustices, I tried to speak about it.”

As he prepares to launch his hard-court preparation for the U.S. Open, Murray continues pushing to get the best out of himself and the team around him.

Seeking more power and spin, he experimented with a new racket this year before concluding the acclimation wasn’t worth it, so he reverted to his familiar frame. He changed coaches in March, bringing back Lendl, who will be in his box for the U.S. Open, and adding former player Mark Hilton to push him further as a traveling coach.

“A coach is there to challenge you,” Murray said. “I enjoy debating. Even though I have played 900-odd matches on the tour and have been out there for a very long time, I still feel like I can learn.”

And he is making strides. In March, he earned his 700th career victory, which has been among his goals. And he has climbed from No. 135 in the world at the season’s outset to 50th. His next goal is improving his ranking enough to be seeded at big tournaments.

“There’s a lot of people that feel like maybe I shouldn’t be playing,” Murray conceded. “But I love tennis, and I love competing, and I feel like I can get better than where I am today. If I reach that point where I don’t feel like I can improve or that things are maybe going backward, then that would maybe change where I’m at.”

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