Rotterdam 2021: Murray scores important win over Haase, and Norrie also races into Round 2
Nishikori breaks four-match losing streak with win over No7 seed Auger-Aliassime
The vast, impressive Ahoy Arena in Rotterdam is a familiar sight to most fans of tennis.
One of the biggest venues on the tour, and kitted out in the trademark ABN AMRO green, it has traditionally hung a huge yellow tennis ball from the rafters: a nod to the sponsor’s yellow logo.
It is usually packed to the rafters, too, with knowledgeable and vocal fans giving this a particularly lively vibe: there is an open promenade around the entire rim of the lower tier seating. Which makes this year’s event look and sound like an entirely different time and place.
For this is the latest victim of the quarantined, global pandemic tennis schedule: No spectators, no line-judges, no noise at all except the reverberating echo of ball strikes and shoe squeaks.
In fairness, the organisers of the first ATP500 tournament of the year have done a great presentation job: the greens, the subtle dove grey, the oh-so-dark surrounds leavened by fine lines of green light, are striking. But it is also out of kilter with its modern, bright, and upbeat host city.
Hard work, then, for the players to generate some excitement, some intensity, some mental focus in near silence—aside, that is, from the booming line calls that even cancel out the chance of a challenge.
It certainly looked, in the first singles match of this year’s tournament, as though Nikoloz Basilashvili was struggling to find any impetus when he took on British qualifier Cameron Norrie.
The former world No16 from Georgia could not get a game on the board as leftie Norrie ripped his game apart to take the first set, 6-0. The run continued into the second, until Basilashvili finally got a game that preluded a run of three against the Briton with a timely break.
The Georgian, though, has struggled to find form since the tour resumed last August, winning just two from 14 matches as he came into Rotterdam. In contrast, Norrie was on a rising curve in 2021 after reaching the semis in Delray Beach and the third round at the Australian Open—where he put up a good fight against No2 seed Rafael Nadal.
Here, he again stopped Basilashvili in his tracks, broke back, and held for 4-3, forcing more errors from his opponent, who shanked and rushed his shots. The Georgian held off the Briton in a long eighth game with a couple of line-hitting backhands, but he could not produce the same consistency as Norrie, who broke for 5-3. And at the third time of asking, Norrie served out the win, 6-3, after just 63 minutes, and with only nine errors to his name compared with 34 by the Georgian.
Things become harder in the second round, where he will face either Karen Khachanov or Stan Wawrinka, who do not play until Tuesday.
Next up was the long-absent former world No4 Kei Nishikori, who took on the youngest man in the draw, the 20-year-old No7 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Nishikori was just 2-7 in matches since returning from to the tour last September after long-standing elbow problems and surgery. He had lost all three matches so far this year, while his young opponent—runner-up in Rotterdam in 2020— had reached his seventh tour final in Melbourne and the fourth round of the Australian Open.
There was nothing between the two in the hour-plus first set, not a break through some extended and lively rallies. Come the tie-break, Auger-Aliassime closed down an early deficit, but Nishikori was finding some crisp and precise backhands just at the right time to close it out, 7-6(4).
Nishikori broke at the start of the second set, too, and it soon became clear why Auger-Aliassime was beginning to struggle: the Canadian called the physio to work on his right hip. It was not enough, and the Japanese star went on to serve out the win, 6-1. He will next play the winner of the Aussie contest between John Millman and Alex de Minaur.
All eight seeds in the Rotterdam draw are top-20 players, but Nishikori is just one of a clutch of dangerous non-seeds who have enjoyed top-flight seasons in the past.
Khachanov, a former Masters titlist, has been No8, Borna Coric as high as No12, and wild card Andy Murray, of course, a former No1.
The Briton’s fortunes since the start of 2019, though, have tested Murray time and again: major hip surgery two years ago, plus other physical set-backs as he worked his way back, and then testing positive for Covid just before his scheduled trip to Australia.
Certainly he had kept his training schedule up to speed, and took on board a Challenger last month in Italy, reaching the final. But after a less-than-ideal opener in Montpellier last week, he could not hide his determination to continue his comeback to the top level.
“I’ve missed quite a lot of big tournaments in recent years with injury, and then [Covid infection] happened and I was really, really disappointed… I’m pumped to be back competing again. Physically I feel good, which is the most important thing. Obviously the next most important thing for me is to get matches and to get back to winning again on tour.”
He had not played home favourite, fellow wild card Robin Haase, for almost six years, and despite the Dutch man’s lowly ranking, he was not to be underestimated—a man blighted over the year by injuries but able to turn on the form at the drop of a hat. And he did here: Renowned for his forehand, he got Murray into trouble with his backhand several times, and broke twice for 4-1.
Twice, Haase read the Murray drop-shot and pulled off winning lobs, and eventually served out the set with ease, 6-2, in little more than half an hour.
The second set was a much closer affair, and the question was, could Haase retain his focus and level—a facet where the Dutchman has sometimes wavered. Murray had to dig deep to save a break point in a long seventh game, and battled to hold for 5-4, too, with both men running their socks off. But it signalled perhaps a turn in the tide as Murray started to come off the better in the longer exchanges.
Sure enough it headed to a tiebreak, and Murray made a perfect lob for the first advantage, served big for 4-1, and again for the set, 7-6(2).
Murray’s level had improved, and Haase was showing signs of fatigue, yet it was the Dutchman who got the first break in the third, and he held for 3-0. Murray was frustrated, beating himself up, but Haase’s serve began to let him down, and the Briton whipped a backhand pass to break back.
The rallies grew increasingly gruelling, draining affairs, and a tired backhand from Haase conceded another break. It left Murray to serve out his first main-tour win since the beginning of September, 6-3, after two and a half hours, and looking far more like his old self at the end of the match than he had at the start.
He will expect to face a far tougher opponent in Andrey Rublev in Round 2, in a thorough test of his movement and fitness. First, the young Russian has to beat qualifier Marcos Giron.