In the space of fewer than four years, Murray and Wawrinka claimed six Major titles between them, and reached several more finals.
But the last two years had knocked both men back as each faced surgery, and consequent slides in their rankings from No1 and No3 respectively
Murray resorted to what may have been career-ending hip surgery this January, his second hip operation, after finding himself outside the top 800 last year. Now he was still ranked at only 243, with just five singles match-wins on the board, and so used his protected rankings to enter a classy Antwerp draw that boasted four top-20 players.
He arrived in Belgium in search not just of a first title but a first final in two and a half years—back in 2017 in Doha and Dubai.
Wawrinka’s injury woes hit hard in 2017, when two left-knee surgeries as good as ended his season. He made seven first-round exits in 2018 and managed only 17 wins the whole year, but clawed his way up to 69.
His first strong run came in Rotterdam this year, his first final since the clay swing of 2017 when he won his home Geneva title and made the final of the French Open. Now he was back to No18 after a clutch of top-quality runs, including quarter-finals at the Madrid Masters, Roland Garros and the US Open. But he was yet to win a title since that surgery.
For both men, then, this was a hugely significant final, one that would bring the winner in from the title drought. Murray admitted:
“I think it will be a nice match to play. Me and Stan have played a lot against each other… It is nice that we are both able to be back playing against each other in a final.”
Wawrinka came out hitting big, and broke Murray in the second game. The Briton had a chance to get the break back in the third game, but could not do so, 0-3, and although there were some probing rallies along the way, Wawrinka did not offer another break chance on the way to serving out the set at 6-3.
He was still in ball-pounding mood at the start of the second set, got the early break, and held to love for 3-1 in formidable style.
But Murray has never been a man to back down, even when facing more break points in the fifth game. He fended them off, and then saw his chance to break back as Wawrinka offered up a one too many second serves: They were suddenly back on level terms, 3-3.
Wawrinka, though, had the chance to break in the key eighth game, but Murray found two cross-court forehands and an ace to hold, and the crowd roared their approval.
Wawrinka produced his unique hammer-drive of a backhand, then a smash to hold for 4-4, and called on the fans for more support. And he looked ready to feed off the noise with more chances for timely break, only for Murray to survive again.
But could the Briton repeat the efforts of his previous two matches and take this to a third set? The answer came after another dramatic game of erroneous calls and replayed shots: Yes he could. Murray broke for the set, 6-4.
It should have been no surprise. This was the pair’s 20th meeting, and many of their contests had gone the gruelling distance. Their last but one match, in the French Open semi-finals in 2017, lasted five sets and more than four and a half hours.
This promised to push both players to their limits again. With close to two hours on the clock, an early break by Wawrinka was wiped out by a break back, 2-2. Now that Swiss backhand opened up the court again with a blistering winner for three more break points, and he converted the first.
Still the contest went on, as Murray broke again. This time he held, but serving at 4-4, Wawrinka yet again earned the chance to break—and yet again Murray managed to hold. And this time, after two and a half hours, Murray brought up match point, and Wawrinka hit wide. Murray was back on a tennis podium, 6-4.
He lifted his arms in victory, but then bowed his head in tears. With hat in hand, he strode to the net to embrace Wawrinka, a genuinely warm moment. And as he sat and wept into his towel, Wawrinka came and sat alongside him, chatted, lifted the weight of that moment for an emotional Murray. It was a generous gesture.
And generosity filled the words of both men while the crowd remained packed into the arena.
“I think the tennis world and me were sad in Australian to see you, and to see what you have achieved after surgery is amazing. And I may have lost today, but it’s amazing to have you back.”
“The last few years have been extremely difficult, a lot of injury problems—like Stan. I think it was a great match—Stan was playing unbelievable, hitting winners from all over the court… he is amazing, a brilliant player. I think that’s the 20th match… [I think] this is one of the biggest wins that I’ve had after everything…”
And addressing his wife, who is due to give birth to their third child this week, Murray concluded:
“We’ve been through some very tough times together but we got through it. I look forward to seeing my family tomorrow.”
For many, including Murray, there were times when singles titles seemed but a distant hope. Now, 2020 seems a much brighter prospect for this battling Briton.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge