The rains have come often and heavy, and the timetable has been rescheduled, and rescheduled again, right from the first day.
And on that first day, former Wimbledon, US Open and Olympic champion Andy Murray featured in one of just two matches played on Stadium court. Even so, he was not done until 1am, after more than two and a half hours, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, against Mackenzie McDonald.
At least Murray got a day off come Tuesday, which was just as well: He played No4 seed Kyle Edmund on Wednesday, and took another two and a half hours and three sets to reach the third round.
No respite from the schedule for Round 3, though: Again it rained, again Murray’s match against Marius Copil was delayed, again the Briton had to battle into the early hours to win.
The two men did not take to court until midnight, and the first set alone lasted over an hour, and was a heart-breaker for Murray. From 5-0 up in the tie-break, he lost seven straight points and the set to the 93-ranked Copil, who played aggressive and confident tennis, slicing his one-handed backhand to great effect, and serving well. He dropped only six points on his own serve and did not offer a single break point chance to Murray: 7-6(5).
Murray contained the tall Romanian much better in the second set, and broke at the start and the end to level the match, 6-3.
The Briton, serving first in the third, seemed to have the win in his grasp when he broke to lead 4-2, but Copil, looking the fresher of the two men, dragged Murray to deuce and converted his second break point, before holding to level at 4-4.
The emotions were already pouring from the physically exhausted Murray, and he berated himself for failing to capitalise. But Copil’s serving kept him well in contention with ace after ace—10 in this set—and he even threw in a bold SABR play against the Murray serve. But the Briton, for the first time in the match, then produced a love hold of his own to put the pressure back on his opponent.
Copil held on admirably, and by now had stacked up 50 winners, but come the tie-break, Murray refused to be denied. By the time he had edged to 6-3, he was roaring ‘C’mon on’ at every point, and he closed it out at the second time of asking, 7-6(4), after three hours, two minutes, to complete the latest ever finish in Washington, at a minute after 3am.
And then the effort, emotionally and physically, hit Murray with a bang. After a long and warm exchange at the net between the two men, the Briton slumped to his seat, buried his face in his towel, and wept—huge, shoulder-shaking sobs.
These few very private but oh-so-public minutes captured the story that Murray has lived for the last 18 months or so, dating back almost to the last hard-court tournament he played, Indian Wells in 2017.
Just a year ago, Murray was No1 in the world after a back-breaking 2016 season of nine titles and 87 matches to displace Novak Djokovic and take the top spot for the first time in the very last match of the year.
He began last year strongly, too—a final in Doha, the title in Dubai—but lost in the first round of Indian Wells and did not play Miami due to injury. And as the clay season unfolded, so did the signs of a growing hip problem for Murray, and after a five-set quarter-final loss at Wimbledon, he did not play again all year.
Following an aborted attempt to return to the tour in Australia this January, Murray finally resorted to hip surgery, and he did not return to court until back on home turf, the grass swing that climaxes with Wimbledon. But after a first-round loss at Queen’s and a second-round exit at Eastbourne, he forsook Wimbledon to get his body into better shape.
In truth, the fitness and fire had looked promising in all three grass matches: He took Nick Kyrgios to 7-5 in the third set at Queen’s and beat Stan Wawrinka—also still working his way back from surgery—in Eastbourne.
But Murray needed and wanted matches, as he explained before the start of Washington:
“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.”
Well, matches he has been getting, with a vengeance, matches that have tested that hip, his physical endurance and, perhaps more than anything, his mental stamina after so little match-play for over a year.
As for his ranking, he joked before he had played any matches in Washington about his lowly position—his ‘punishment’ for failing to defend so many points last year. He is currently ranked 832—the lowest he has ever been since turning pro as a teenager 13 years ago.
The up side of the rankings treadmill, though, is that every win can pile on points and places from now through to next summer. Already he is up more than 400 places, and another win will take him to around 265. Two more wins and he is inside the top 200. Victory, and he would be closing in on the top 100.
But that is a giant leap of faith for his followers. There remain some huge challenges in this draw, despite a significant exodus of seeds in Murray’s bottom half. No2 seed John Isner is out, as are No8 Hyeon Chung, No6 Lucas Pouille and No12 Karen Khachanov. First, Murray plays one of the most promising young risers on the tour, 19 year old Alex de Minaur, ranked 72 but with two seeds felled in Washington already.
And it will be another late start, around 9pm given dry weather, but then Murray will need every minute to recuperate from his Washington journey so far. It has tested him, it has drained him, but it has brought out the fighting determination for which the Briton is so admired.
And should he lose, well there are big, big points to win in the coming few weeks, at the Toronto and Cincinnati Masters and then the US Open. As he and many before him have pointed out, if he keeps winning matches, the ranking will take care of itself.
In the top half, the seeds fared much better, with the defending champion and world No3 Alexander Zverev beating the No15 seed, his brother Mischa, in their first ever main-tour match. They then joined forces in doubles to beat the top seeds for a place in the quarter-final.
The young German next plays No7 seed Kei Nishikori, the 2015 champion, whose careful return to the elite level after his own injury problems, seems to be bearing fruit. He played some fine tennis to beat No9 seed Denis Shapovalov, 7-6(1), 6-3.
Also in this half, No3 seed David Goffin dominated Frances Tiafoe, 6-0, 6-3, to set a quarter-final against No10 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge