The Asian swing has been a happy hunting ground for Andy Murray. He has won three Shanghai Masters titles from four finals, and has also claimed the trophy in Beijing, Tokyo and Shenzhen.
Perhaps no surprise, then, that he chose to play back-to-back weeks in China in his efforts to reclaim full fitness and competitive sharpness after major surgery at the start of the year. It helps not a little, too, that Murray has always been a big fan favourite in this part of the world: where better, then, to test his recovery and stamina?
It has, of course, taken a protected ranking, for Murray is currently ranked 503 after winning not a single main-tour match since bowing out in pain and tears in his opener at the Australian Open.
He tested the results of his hip surgery in doubles, and with considerable success: the title at Queen’s with Feliciano Lopez. But he has been cautious, and rightly so, about going flat out on a single court. And judging by his tennis, and most importantly his movement, now that he has entered the fray, it has been a wise approach.
He began with his first ATP singles match-win in Zhuhai last week, where he survived two gruelling three-setters, and lost the latter to the eventual champion Alex de Minaur.
On to Beijing, and the curse of the unseeded player. He drew the No13-ranked Matteo Berrettini in his opener, a man who reached his first US Open semi-final last month, but Murray came back from a break down in both tie-break sets for his biggest win by ranking since the French Open in 2017.
Then he took on fellow Brit Cameron Norrie, and played two more tie-breaks before scoring the win after almost three hours, 6-1 in the third. It marked Murray’s first quarter-final in a year, and his first back-to-back win since that hip surgery.
The effort was clear to see: Murray looked weary by the conclusion, and admitted:
“I’m really tired. That’s the first time I’ve had to do that since I came back… It’s something that I need to kind of get used to again, especially playing at this level and that intensity.”
“It was a good step for me. It’s great that I won the match. Whether I’d won or lost it, I was able to come out the following day and be competitive and play some good tennis. But obviously I’m happy I’ve got the day off tomorrow to recover.”
He certainly needed to recharge his batteries for the next encounter, for he faced the top seed and world No5 Dominic Thiem, and the super-fit Austrian has been going from strength to strength this season, give-or-take a virus during the US Open Series that saw him manage just two match wins.
Sadly for Murray, however, Thiem was back to full strength for Beijing, and brought to the court the speed, power, variety and skill that earned big wins and scalps this season. He beat Roger Federer to win his first Masters title in Indian Wells, then beat Rafael Nadal on his way to the Barcelona title, beat Federer again in Madrid, and got the better of world No1 Novak Djokovic in a gripping five-setter at the French Open.
That victory saw Thiem reach his second Roland Garros final in a row—though Nadal again refused to give up his crown.
Now Thiem would have to use all his resources to top Murray in what became an intense and high-quality battle.
The first game alone took 11 minutes, contained a 31-stroke rally, set the tone for what was to come with pin-point ground strokes, remarkable defence and tactical smartness. It would, though, give Thiem the break at the fourth attempt, which he backed up with a love hold.
Murray fended off break points in the third game, too, with more displays of length-perfect lobs, great retrieval and another gut-busting 30-plus rally. At times, it looked as though Thiem was out-playing Murray at his own all-court game, turning defence into attack, ghosting in for some deft put-aways, and finding angles on his forehand that tested the Briton at the extreme margins of the court.
After saving a break point of his own, then, Thiem broke again for 5-2, and served out the exhilarating first set, 6-2, after 51 minutes. He had made 16 winners for only seven errors, though Murray, too, had a positive win-to-error count.
The second set began exactly the same as the first, a break, followed by a love hold from Thiem. His serving was a masterclass, 21/22 points won on his first delivery, though just when the Austrian seemed to have the match on his racket, serving at 5-4, and with no break points thus far, he made three double faults, and Murray pounced to level the score, 5-5. A love hold, and he led for the first time.
Thiem regrouped to take it to a tie-break, and the statistics by now were outstanding on both sides: A combined tally of 60 winners against 37 errors, with 17 forehand winners apiece.
Now the Austrian surged to a lead in what would be the deciding game, 5-1, serving big and playing aggressive. A final forehand winner, and he had the win, 7-6(3), after almost two hours, and with 35 winners to just 16 errors to his name, with 11 points won at the net.
It is certainly no accident that Thiem is beginning to stack up important wins over the best opposition. His stamina and determination have never been wanting, but maturity and experience, plus a significant change in coach this spring to Nicolas Massu, have taken the world No5 up a level.
And if he reaches the Beijing final this weekend—he will have to beat No4 seed Karen Khachanov to do so—he will confirm his place at the ATP Finals for the fourth time. It would mark his first Asian final, too. And with a semi run at the Paris Masters last year, plus that Indian Wells victory in March, he will have high hopes of getting beyond the round-robin phase in London this time around.
As for Murray, he must surely draw confidence from the tennis he has produced in Beijing and especially against Thiem. He admitted to tiredness, and to some uncertainty during the early stages of the match but concluded:
“The week overall was good.”
Now he heads to Shanghai, and will hope to pick up a decent draw: He could, on paper, find himself facing one of the last two champions in the second round—assuming the Briton wins his opener. Defending champion Djokovic and 2017 champion Federer will be top the seeds there, though world No2 Rafael Nadal has withdrawn due to injury.
Khachanov beat Fabio Fognini, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1
Stefanos Tsitsipas beat John Isner, 7-6(3), 6-3
Tsitsipas will play either Alexander Zverev or Sam Querrey in the semis.
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