Nor given that Murray is currently ranked 832—and a measure of just how ‘out there’ that is for the man who was No1 this time a year ago, he was already inside the top 800 when he turned pro as a teenager 13 years ago.
Nor given that he had managed to play just three matches, all on grass—and won only one—since Wimbledon more than a year ago. Following six months nursing a hip injury, and an aborted attempt to return to the tour in Australia this January, Murray had hip surgery, and the rehab has been long and hard. So hard that, after Queen’s and Eastbourne, he even forsook this year’s Wimbledon to get his body into better shape.
So no, by any measure, it has not been easy for the two-time Wimbledon and two-time Olympic gold champion. But after more than two and a half hours, and forced into the early hours of a Washington morning by extensive rain delays, the Briton came through the severe challenge of Mackenzie McDonald, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5.
The young American, age 23 and ranked 80, brought Murray under early pressure, with the Briton showing signs of rust and slow to find his usual timing and rhythm. McDonald broke twice in the opening set to take the lead in just 40 minutes.
The match, aside from the rain hold-ups, featured an on-court clock—the entire US Open Series is breaking new ground in trying to enforce agreed time-limits on players before and during the match. So here was another new element that Murray had to master. Even so, the contest was along and gruelling affair.
Murray broke to serve out the second set, but passed up the same chance in the decider as McDonald broke after facing five match points to level the set at 5-5. However, Murray broke again, and this time made no mistake, serving out the win with a huge roar of satisfaction—and surely of relief. He lost his first match of the year, at Queen’s against Nick Kyrgios, in an even closer score-line, 6-2, 6-7, 5-7, and in a near identical time.
He told ATPWorldTour.com after his near-1am finish:
“It was a tough, tough match. It could have gone either way. Obviously if you lose a match like that, it’s a tough one. When I lost to Gabashvili here, I lost serving for the match, so I was thinking about that a little bit, too.
“I wasn’t dictating many of the points. I wasn’t hitting the ball that cleanly. I just fought and tried to make it tough for him. Made a few little adjustments here and there. But mentally, it was a big one to get through.”
Murray has only played the ATP500 in Washington once since his final run as a 19-year-old in 2006, and it was indeed a loss to the then 53-ranked Gabashvili—a surprise defeat given that Murray was then ranked No3 and had built such a track-record on the hard road to the US Open. Three times he has won the Rogers Cup in Canada and twice he has won the Cincinnati Masters. And his first Major came at the US Open itself in 2012, one of 33 hard-court titles among a tally of 45.
Murray also talked ahead of his Washington win about his targets following such a long-awaited return.
“If I stay fit and healthy, I’m not worried so much about ranking. I want to be winning matches and competing against the best players, and that will build my fitness up quicker than anything I could do in the gym.
“So that’s my goal between now and the end of the year, and hopefully it’ll mean I’ll be ready to start the 2019 season really well.”
Unfortunately, from a British perspective, Murray will next play the man who has usurped his place as the top-ranked Briton, Kyle Edmund. And that after they were also drawn against each other in Murray’s last match, a defeat by Edmund in Eastbourne.
The No18-ranked Edmund enjoyed a bye in the first round of a starry and big 48-man draw that boasts seven top-20 players plus, Stan Wawrinka who, like Murray, has played little part in the last year following double knee surgery last August.
Edmund and Murray are in a bottom half headed by John Isner, who comes fresh from his fifth title in Atlanta just a couple of days ago.
Wawrinka is ranked 198 and finds himself not only contending with a postponed first match—pushed to Tuesday by the rain—but in a very tough quarter topped by defending champion Alexander Zverev and 2015 champion Kei Nishikori. The Swiss man’s first match is also against an American who can cause serious problems on a good day, Donald Young, with Nishikori in the second round and the young Canadian star Denis Shapovalov in the third round.
So if the weather can play its part, this 50th anniversary edition of the Washington tournament promises top-quality tennis but also important feedback on the form of two significant champions on the tour.
Then there is Zverev, No3 in the world, who will also hope to hit the ground running again as he prepares for his title defence at the Toronto Masters.
Meanwhile, Isner will aim to impose himself still further on the American stage after putting together one of his best ever seasons. Along with Atlanta, he won his first Masters title in Miami in March, and then reached his first Major semi-final at Wimbledon to hit a new career-high No8. He has reached the final in Washington three times.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge