When the US Open revealed Andy Murray had been drawn in the first round against Stefanos Tsitsipas, the in-form third seed, many spectators reacted with fear and pity. Another week, another piece of brutal luck, it was said. At his pre-tournament press conference, Murray was asked about his inability to “take a break”.
But this is Andy Murray, still a former world No. 1, still the most competitive and tenacious person in most rooms he’s ever entered, so he just took it as a challenge to produce his very best tennis. Amazingly, that’s exactly what he did when he nearly took a monumental win, leading Tsitsipas to one by two sets before falling gracefully 2-6, 7-6(7), 3-6, 6-3, 6 -4 after four hours and 48 minutes.
Murray started as a dream. Chasing drop shots, he pinned Tsitsipas in his backhand corner and was decisive when he chose to step in and attack his forehand. Every time he sealed another game, he triumphantly lifted his racket to the sky. His best set in four long years was topped off with an improved, faster first serve that continuously exposed Tsitsipas’ service.
During the second set, Tsitsipas’ own serve improved and he began to dictate more points with his forehand and the pair eventually found themselves deep in a tiebreak. But no vintage Murray match is without drama and Murray slipped at 5-3. He had been sweating profusely, so his shoes were soaked and slippery. While distracted by them, barking at his box, Tsitsipas played clear tennis from 4-6 down to recover and take the tiebreak set.
Rather than the tiebreak being a turning point, Murray quickly ran to a 3-0 lead in the third set and tackled all challenges by playing with freedom. First, he saved four breakpoints at 3-1 with a flurry of huge portions and inventive shot. Then, serving out the set 5-3 from 15-30 behind, he followed a 92mph forehand winner with a smooth serve and volley. He marched to his seat yelling to the crowd, “I’m not fucking done yet, let’s go!”
Tsitsipas passed the break between sets with medical treatment to his foot, but his discomfort only pushed him to the next level. As he started to shorten the points, his backhand blossomed and Murray started to look sluggish. Tsitsipas built up a 5-0 lead but held on to 6-3 to force a fifth set.
Ahead of the final set, Tsitsipas went to his second toilet break and did not return for seven minutes. While he waited, Murray complained to the umpire and supervisor, Gerry Armstrong. He then immediately lost his serve at the start of the last set with a booming forehand return. From that immediate deficit, Murray fought to the death, but Tsitsipas crunched forehands and big serves every time he came under pressure. After almost five hours on the field, he closed the game.
After the way Murray was dismantled by Denis Shapovalov in the third round of Wimbledon and his early losses in recent US hard court events, pushing a top three player to a fifth set certainly didn’t seem on the map. But for Murray, this is the justification for so much he’s been saying all along.
There have been so many opinions about his continued presence in the game; criticism of the fact that he uses wildcards at numerous events, a shame for a seemingly fading career and even the well-intentioned suggestion that he has accepted his current accolade as the 112th player in the world and the early losses.
He does not have. While he has struggled through a relentless array of injury problems over the past 18 months, Murray has consistently maintained that if he is able to fathom his body, he will remain able to play at a high level even if he doesn’t quite know what level that is. is. His logic is simple and convincing: he has not forgotten how to play tennis.
Before the tournament, Murray said he has finally been able to train at a regular pace in recent weeks. That was not the case at Wimbledon, where he severely limited his training hours to manage a groin injury. Murray was frustrated with his recent level in the US, but for once he has been able to focus on improving his game rather than worrying about just getting on the pitch.
The result, even in defeat, is priceless. Against one of the best players in the world, Murray has shown himself and everyone else what he is still capable of. He may have lost in the first round, and for the first time in his career there, but he should leave New York, encouraged by his performance and desperate for more.