Cincinnati 2020: Andy Murray off to winning start after 10-month gap: Zverev next
“My goal was to come and my hip to be feeling good… So I don’t mind how much tennis I get to play”
To see any top-flight tennis after almost six months in lock-down is a sight for sore eyes. To see Andy Murray play his first tour match in 10 months, and his first of 2020, is a sight to gladden the heart.
When he made a tear-stained exit, in considerable pain, from last year’s Australian Open, before undergoing major hip surgery, many wondered if he would make it back at all. That in his first competitive appearance, he won the Queen’s doubles title was more than his fans might have hoped for. And when he finally made inroads in singles tennis to win in Antwerp last October—well, it seemed almost too good to be true.
In fact it was just that: He played one Davis Cup match in November before pulling out with a pelvic injury. Cue 2020, and tournament after tournament came and went without Murray’s participation, and before his planned return at the Miami Masters in March, the curtain fell on tennis as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe.
And it is only this week that the curtain has been drawn back a little to view from afar the first big tournament since Indian Wells’ sudden demise.
The Cincinnati Masters has been relocated to the home of the US Open in New York under heavily-restricted conditions—just a handful of media are allowed on site and no fans at all. But while the magnificent grounds of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center have the look and sound of a ghost town, the ‘new order’ has not deterred most of the top men, including No1 Novak Djokovic and defending champion Daniil Medvedev.
And it has not deterred Murray, though ranked 129, he needed a wild card into the main draw. Of course, the two-time Cincinnati champion did not enjoy the bye in the first round enjoyed by the top eight seeds, and so was exposed early in the draw to some formidable challenges.
His opener was against fellow wild card, the No81 ranked Frances Tiafoe, a young player who broke the top 30 last year after making the quarters of the Australian Open.
And the American stayed with Murray to 5-5 in the first set without a break point on either side. The Briton saved the first break opportunity in the next game, and it went to a tie-break, where Tiafoe took a 5-2 lead and worked a set point before Murray strung together three points to grab the set, 7-6(6).
The conditions were grueling, and both men were drenched in sweat in a peculiarly quiet Grandstand arena. Between rallies, there is a strangely slow pace to proceedings: there are no line-judges—the calling is done electronically—and players have to fetch and deposit their own towels at the back of the court as a precaution for the boy kids.
The first set had taken well over an hour, and mid-way through the second, both men began to look drained. Of course, one of the biggest questions surrounding this return to competition after such a long hiatus is, how will players respond over the long-haul, through energy-sapping matches? In the latter stages of the second set, it looked as though the younger man—by more than a decade—had more in his legs, and Tiafoe broke to take a 5-4 lead, and served it out, 6-4.
But it would be mental as much as physical energy that determined the result, and Murray’s tactical astuteness drained the last bit of resistance from Tiafoe. The Briton, showing that none of his will-to-win has diminished in his absence, surged to a 6-1 win after more than two and a half hours.
Murray tapped the umpire’s foot—one of the new protocols—and in a rather sad gesture, turned to the court to lift his racket in the usual victory salute, but to thousands of empty seats.
He afterwards explained:
“There isn’t really an atmosphere, to be honest… that’s obviously a little bit tricky. I mean, I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but you need to kind of create your own atmosphere on the court. It’s just not quite the same…
“In difficult moments, a crowd being there maybe helps you focus a little bit more and sometimes gives you that little bit extra boost in terms of your energy, your concentration, and that’s not there. I thought I did quite well with that. Like at the beginning of the third set, I made a big effort to give as much energy as possible—fist pumping and trying to be positive—that helped a bit.”
More importantly, how did he feel physically after this big, early test?
“Physically, I thought I did pretty well. I moved maybe better than I expected to. The first few matches back when I started playing singles last year, I moved way worse than I did today, so that was positive. My tennis could have been better—I guess that will come, the more matches I play. But I need to see how I recover from a match like that too, because although I felt good during the match, things can sometimes stiffen up and hurt a bit afterward.
“But physically I was good. That is the most important thing for me, because that hasn’t been the case for the last ten months.
“But I said when I spoke to my team about getting ready for here, my goal was to come in and my hip to be feeling good. That is what I wanted. So I don’t mind how much tennis I get to play. I know that will come with time, with more practice and more matches.”
Patience is probably a tough resource to find for a man who has been away from his sport for two extended injury breaks—plus the extra months of pandemic shut-down—but Murray recognizes that patience is indeed a virtue.
“Probably to have lower expectations. Like I said, I know the tennis will come, but it’s also not going to come back immediately… But I got through it and I didn’t get too down on myself.
“I managed to win a match. I’m getting an opportunity to play against a top player in a couple days’ time. That’s what I wanted.”
Murray faces world No7 Alexander Zverev for a place in the third round, in what will be their first match since the Australian Open in 2016—when Zverev was still a teenager. Since then, the young German has won three Masters titles and the ATP Finals. The 6ft 6ins Zverev will certainly give Murray just the test he is after.
Other British results
Kevin Anderson beat Kyle Edmund, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-3
Reilly Opelka beat Cameron Norrie 6-3, 6-4
Bernarda Pera beat Heather Watson, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3