Novak Djokovic continued the long journey back from elbow injury last summer to reassert his reputation on the green stuff with his first visit to the Queen’s Club in eight years, and had the title almost within his grasp. Marin Cilic saved match point and went on to get the win in a thrilling three-setter. But the improvement in form and confidence in the Djokovic tennis that began in the latter stages of the clay season was such that he boosted hugely his profile in time for Wimbledon.
Roger Federer was also a runner-up, in his favoured tournament in Halle, but with the Stuttgart title already under his belt, he too is more than ready for his Wimbledon defence. He would, he said afterwards, get some rest and then do some light training once he arrived at the All England Club.
Rafael Nadal threw so much emotional and physical energy into his clay season—winning in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros—that he withdrew from the Queen’s draw for lighter preparation on the practice courts of Mallorca. He will sharpen his grass tennis in a couple of exhibition matches at the Hurlingham Club this week.
However, what of the only other current player who has won the Wimbledon title? Andy Murray was No1 in the ranks this time last year, was defending champion at the All England Club, but was on borrowed time. He had carried a hip injury through much of the clay season last year, and with his quarter-final loss at Wimbledon, just like the then No2 Djokovic, it would spell the last match of the year.
Murray did not play another tour match until last week, where he returned to the tournament where he has been a five-time champion: Queen’s. But unseeded, he drew fellow non-seed Nick Kyrgios—a test and a half for a first match back after hip surgery.
Murray made a good account of himself but finally ran out of steam in the third set of his opener.
But Queen’s loss has been Eastbourne’s gain. The newly-titled Nature Valley International offered a wild card to the 156-ranked Murray, and he took it. But then, in a freak of the draw, who should he face in the first round but a fellow Grand Slam champion who also ended his 2017 season at Wimbledon and went under the surgeon’s knife, Stan Wawrinka.
The Swiss had already dipped his toe into the tour waters this year, but with little success. Now ranked 225 and on a 5-8 win-loss record in 2018, he did win his first match in his last three visits to Queen’s, but then also came up against a formidable opponent too soon, former champion Sam Querrey, and lost a competitive three-setter.
So Wawrinka was in need of more competition, too, but what were the chances that the two wild cards would draw one another at the first hurdle?
But so it was, and the packed centre court got to see the 19th match between these two great players. Murray led their rivalry 10-8, and he had won both matches played at Wimbledon. Their first there, in 2009, was one of the most memorable of the tournament that year, as a young Murray won in five sets. He would go on to reach his first semi-final in what became a superb run at his home Major: Two quarters, four semis, and two titles—plus 2012 Olympic gold, when he last played Wawrinka on grass.
And Murray began where he left off against Kyrgios last week, with precise and powerful driving from the back of the court and some very solid serving, an area he identified for particular attention last week. He dropped only one point on first serve, five more on second, faced no break points, and broke twice to take the first set in a scant half hour.
The second set was closer, as Wawrinka began to find his range on the fast courts of Devonshire Park. The crowd was treated to some flowing backhands from the Swiss, but he was not as nimble around the court as Murray, who sprinted to the net and showed encouraging signs of the formidable defensive play that he produces better than most: lobs from apparently impossible situations, a running forehand winner, and more.
He got the first break, but had to dig deep fight off four break points in a long eighth game, but his resistance and depth of shot drew too many errors from Wawrinka. He broke for the match, 6-3, after the Swiss double faulted, and this knowledgeable British crowd rose as one to mark his significant first win in a year.
Murray smiled, lifted his arms to the sky and closed his eyes, before taking a moment to sit courtside and soak up the stage, the crowd and the applause. This clearly meant the world.
“Very happy to get the win. I thought the first set I played well, second set was a little bit patchy at times, a bit nervous towards the end. Obviously when you’ve not played for the best part of a year, closing out the match against someone like Stan, who I’ve had lots of great matches with—tough, tough guy to play against—was tough. But delighted to get the win.”
As the luck of the draw would have it, Murray next plays the young Briton who usurped his home No1 position during his absence, Kyle Edmund. He would have played the young Briton at Queen’s too, had he beaten Kyrgios.
Since Murray last played him, Edmund has gone from strength to strength, reaching the semis of the Australian Open and his first final in Marrakech. He is now ranked at a career-high 17 and seeded No2 in Eastbourne. But he and Murray know each other’s game well, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It should have the polite Eastbourne crowds on their feet.
Elsewhere teenage Briton Jay Clarke scored his first main-tour match-win over Ryan Harrison, 6-4, 6-1, and will play his first Wimbledon match as a wild card next week. He will next play fellow wild card Cameron Norrie or qualifier Daniel Brands.
In the same top half, John Millman beat Gilles Muller, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, while Denis Istomin beat Andreas Seppi, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6.
In the bottom Murray/Edmund half, David Ferrer beat Matteo Berrettini 7-5, 6-3, and Jared Donaldson beat Taylor Fritz, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, and will next play the exciting young Canadian and No3 seed Denis Shapovalov.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge