For Murray, a three-time Major champion, two-time Olympic gold medallist, former world No1, revealed in an emotional press conference that this may also be his last match in Melbourne, perhaps his last match ever, so long had he lived with hip pain.
When he drew the super-fit, hyper-professional No22 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who arrived in Melbourne with a title-winning run in Doha via wins over Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych, the result looked as close to a foregone conclusion as his fans could imagine.
The Spaniard, owner of nine titles from 16 finals, had risen to No13 a couple of years back, but after a tough year away from tennis—the death of his mother, his father confined to a wheelchair—his was proving to be a gutsy, hard-earned return to form.
Their previous history, of course, meant little in the context of Murray’s struggles with injury for almost two years and his scant match-play. The Briton’s 3-0 advantage, including victory in the Shanghai Masters final in 2016, looked sure to end differently this time.
But such has been the affection, admiration, and respect that greeted Murray’s announcement of his imminent retirement that the crowds poured into this match. And if ever a few thousand people could make a difference to an outcome, this was it: They cheered Murray’s arrival, his warm-up, his first won point—and would have plenty more to cheer about in an unexpectedly long, unexpectedly gripping match.
Not that anyone doubted how much effort Murray would bring to the table, but it was clear early on that his speed and movement, the keys to his success over the years, were not up to the usual level. Pushed ever wider in this vast court, and missing half a pace, he was forced into errors, and the wiry frame and footwork of Bautista Agut did their worst.
The Spaniard worked a break chance with a ruthless long rally to drive Murray way out of reach of a whistling ball, and got the first break with a vicious strike to the opposite backhand wing, 5-4.
Murray, watched by mother and brother, was sweating profusely, and looked exhausted already—his lack of match-play since surgery a year ago perhaps taking its toll. The Bautista Agut tactics were clear: keep Murray moving, not just wide to the wings but forward with drop shots. A love hold, and he led 6-4.
Murray stayed dogged and determined and, buoyed up by a packed Melbourne arena, earned two early break points in the second set, but could not convert. He then threw in a love hold with a couple of superb running winners and an ace. He pumped his fist, engaging the crowd still further. One had to feel sorry for the Spaniard, but this consummate professional stuck to his tactics, and broke for a 3-2 lead.
Murray was making uncharacteristic errors on the run. He held on with some brave strikes for the remainder of the set, but could not break back. After an hour and a half, he was down another set, 6-4, as a focused and calm Bautista Agut served it out with an ace.
Murray had the crowd on its feet in the opening point of the third set, as he fended off the Spaniard at the net with a lob and then a touch volley winner. Bautista Agut, not to be outdone, produced a winning lob himself, and then earned three break chances in the third game with a leaping backhand smash, just one indication of the quality that the Spanish 30-year-old can bring to the court.
Sure enough, it earned a break, but the warrior in Murray would not let that go. He converted a break-back point in classic style, using angle, spin, and a drop-shot to level things, and aced a love hold, 3-2: The arena erupted, Murray pumped.
Now adrenalin seemed to inject extra passion, extra energy into Murray, and the crowd responded with every net attack, every angled return winner. The place became a cauldron when Murray edged a break point, set point, at 5-4, but a wrong ‘out’ call on the Spaniard’s second serve turned into a hold.
Murray’s serve, though, was steadily cranking up, along with his ace count, and he took it to 6-5. Bautista Agut matched him to reach a tie-break as the clock edged to two and a half hours. Could Murray take it still further?
In classic style, the Briton played a heavily disguised backhand drop winner, 2-0, then a 13th ace and a gruelling baseline point for 4-1. Bautista Agut still produced some brilliant tactical shots to bring out Murray’s best defence, and got back on serve with a forehand winner, but the Briton had a point to prove, and did so with a huge swinging smash. It drew that familiar roar from Murray, and sealed the set, 7-6(5).
But how much had it taken from the Briton’s body? Alarm bells rang at 0-30 and 2-3 down, as Bautista Agut maintained the pressure with admirable focus. The match was now three hours old, but Murray reeled off four straight points to hold, 3-3.
The set would stay on serve, with Murray closer to his best with every game, and it would reach another tie-break. Murray surged to a 6-1 lead, only to see Bautista Agut edge back to 6-4, but the Briton would not be denied: He served out the set, 7-6(4).
Murray was playing like a man possessed, retrieving as only he can, and it drew a growing number of errors from Bautista Agut. The first point of the final set was extraordinary, as Murray chased in for a drop pick-up, raced back to retrieve a lob, and won the first point.
But in the third game, the Spaniard was back on the offensive, and pulled off a high smash to earn two break points. Murray conceded the break with a tired backhand into the net.
Bautista Agut had re-grooved, cut out the errors, and seen how laboured Murray was now becoming: He asserted his advantage with a love hold. The Briton looked done, errors resurfaced, and he conceded another break for 4-1. Then the Briton found a bleak smile as a Spanish backhand passed him for a clean winner and a love hold.
Murray stepped to the line, but the crowd would not let him serve: They cheered and cheered, and he acknowledged their support. He looked close to tears, yet still scrambled after every ball to resist one more time: an ace to hold for 2-5.
That would be Murray’s last hurrah, as Bautista Agut served out the win to love, 6-2, despite the standing ovation for Murray as the Spaniard stepped up to the line. Yet the Spaniard strode round the net to embrace Murray, then stood aside for his opponent to take the applause.
Called forward to speak, this quiet Spaniard was again restrained:
“It was an incredible night. Andy deserved this atmosphere and all the people coming to support him… and I want to congratulate him for everything he did for tennis.”
In a particularly moving moment, it would be one of Murray’s first coaches, Mark Petchey, who interviewed Murray before a filmed tribute from all Murray’s greatest adversaries, including Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer. But not before he gave the cheering crowds the tiniest glimmer of hope for a future return.
He began: “That was incredible, thank you so, so much to everyone that came out tonight. I gave literally everything I had tonight, but congratulations to Roberto.”
But then he added:
“Maybe I’ll see you again, I’ll do everything possible to try. If I want another go, I’ll need a big operation and there are no guarantees I’ll be able to come back anyway. But I’ll give it my best shot.
“But if this was my last match, it was an amazing way to end. I gave everything I had.”
So had Murray been premature in predicting that his career could end here? Perhaps he had not anticipated playing so well, managing to [almost] live with Bautista Agut through more than four hours, hit 19 aces, 50 winners, play 34 net points and, above all, draw such huge, vocal and passionate support from the Australian fans.
Perhaps the additional hip surgery would be worth trying if this was the payback—as rousing a match and adoring a public as any player could wish for. Time will tell.
Spare a thought for his valiant opponent, too, who waited courtside for the long Murray tributes to conclude and walked off court with him. He was stoical in the face of universal support for his opponent, and played some very fine tennis to boot—attacking, clever, and unflagging. His reward, though, will be more of the same against one the Aussies’ favourite sons, John Millman, who only just missed out on a seeding after one of his best seasons in 2018. He beat Federico Delbonis, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-2.
Murray was not the only Briton to lose out in the first round. No13 seed Kyle Edmund, a semi-finalist in Australia last year, lost out to the returning and unseeded Berdych, 6-3, 6-0, 7-5. Berdych, who reached the final in Doha last week, looked fresh and fit after six months off the tour with back injuries, and will prove a tough opponent to Robin Haase in the second round.
Cameron Norrie, who reached his first final two days ago in Auckland, was beaten by Taylor Fritz, 6-4, 7-6 (6), 6-2. However, qualifier Dan Evans, ranked 189, made it four wins in a row to beat Tatsuma Ito, 7-5, 6-1, 7-6 (8).
Evans, who reached the fourth round in Australia the last time he played in 2017, faces Roger Federer in Round 2, after the defending champion beat Denis Istomin, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
In the women’s draw, Katie Boulter scored a thrilling win over Ekaterina Makarova, 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 (6) in the first extended tie-break of the tournament, played up to 10 points. Boulter, playing in the main draw for the first time, had not remembered that she needed 10 points until she had celebrated at 7-4 in the final set. No matter: she hit her 53rd winner of a long, hot contest to seal victory, and set a still tougher test against one of the outside tips for the title, No11 seed Aryna Sabalenka.
Harriet Dart, playing Maria Sharapova on Melbourne’s biggest show court, and Heather Watson, both lost their openers.
Elsewhere in the draw, the only men’s seeds to fall, along with Edmund, were No9 John Isner and No31 Steve Johnson, while in the women’s draw, there were losses for No32 Barbora Strycova, No22 Jelena Ostapenko, and No14 Julia Goerges.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge