Queen’s 2021: Andy Murray back on home turf with happy memories but continuing ambition
“The reason I’m still playing is because I love tennis… I want to keep trying and still have the desire to go out there and compete and train every day”
After two years, during which the entire 2020 grass season was abandoned due to the coronavirus pandemic, the most elegant tennis venue on the men’s tour is back.
Now with a new headline sponsor, the cinch Championships at the historic Queen’s Club has many reasons to be cheerful, not least that its most prolific champion, Andy Murray, is returning to competition for the first time since he won his only main-tour match this year in Rotterdam more than three months ago.
It is at Queen’s that the multiple Olympic champion, Major champion, and former world No1 has notched up five singles titles, more than any of his illustrious predecessors—the likes of John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Andy Roddick and Jimmy Connors.
His last appearance at Queen’s was greeted with just as much delight as this year’s wild-card participation. Back in 2019, he entered only the doubles draw as his first tentative step back following major hip surgery after a heart-rending exit at the Australian Open six months before.
He did not just enter the draw, with Feliciano Lopez, he went on to win the title—and Lopez made it double-delight by winning the singles title, too.
Of course, after so long away, and with so little match-play to his credit, expectations for the 124-ranked Briton were not high, especially given that he would face the ever-unpredictable Benoit Paire in the first round. He had to hope that the ill fortune that had dogged his 2021 so far—a positive Covid test ahead of Australia, and a groin injury after Rotterdam—would reverse with his return to his favourite surface.
He admitted before his first match:
“I feel OK. I don’t feel perfect, but I have been practising well over the last month or so… The question mark is obviously whether the body holds up and I can’t say with any great certainty whether that’s going to happen or not.
“My priority, and I know this is probably not what you want to hear, is that I’m healthy. My focus is on that. Because I know I can still play high-level tennis. I’m convinced of that. But if the body is not right, I’m not able to do that.”
Should he win his opening match, Murray is then set to face the top seed, world No9 Matteo Berrettini. The big Italian may be making his debut at Queen’s but he brings with him some strong clay results: the title in Belgrade, final at the Madrid Masters, and quarters at the French Open. He also has a grass title in his resume, in Stuttgart 2019, and here battled past compatriot Stefano Travaglia in two tie-breaks.
The other seed in Murray’s quarter happens to be the current British No1, Dan Evans, who won his career-first title in January and made the semis at the Monte-Carlo Masters. Evans had yet to win a match at Queen’s since 2014, and to do so now, had to beat fast-improving 21-year-old Alexei Popyrin in the first round.
However, perhaps the biggest threat in the draw resided among the unseeded ranks. Former champion Marin Cilic won the title in 2012 and 2018, and was fresh from winning the Stuttgart title last week. He would certainly fancy his chances in a quarter headed by Fabio Fognini.
In the bottom half, it would take a brave fan to dismiss the chances of the veteran Lopez, who has won two of the last three titles at Queen’s, on neither occasion as a seeded player. He won his opener this week against Illya Marchenko, though now faces the prospect of No2 seed, the explosive young Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
But Murray has long developed a pragmatism about what lies ahead in a glittering career that has been so marred by injury and surgery, and now at the age of 34 and watching from the side-lines as his three greatest adversaries continued to stack up records statistics.
That pragmatism shone through when asked about his own form in the light of the performances of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
“Well, it depends what my goal is. If it is to get to No1 or to win Majors, if that’s the only reason why I would continue playing tennis, which it isn’t… then I would have stopped three, four years ago.
“I got asked yesterday what’s been your best memories, at Queen’s. The first memory… [was] winning the doubles at Queen’s with Feli. For me it was really special, and I still created a memory and something I will be very proud of and look back on fondly.
“You know, you can still do things on the court outside of winning Slams or competing with those guys that you can enjoy. What I’m trying to do as well has not happened before, so that’s my own part of my career and my journey that I like as well.
“There was a bit of me that’s jealous watching—I would love to be playing in those matches, I would love to still be competing with them in semis and stuff of Slams. I’m not going to try and hide that. But I also respect incredibly what they are doing and the level of tennis that they are playing.”
How far, then, could he realistically get on the Queen’s turf? Were there doubts about his movement? Well the tricksy Paire knew how to find out, throwing in drop shots aplenty in the early goings. But it was a vintage Murray running forehand pass that got a break in the fourth game, to roars from the fans.
After half an hour, he closed out the first set with a serve and volley, then an ace, 6-3. He was on the back foot several times in the second set, run hither and thither by drop-shot-lob combos, but he it was who got the first break chance, and pulled it off with a cracking cross-court pass on the line.
He held for 4-2, and then Paire conceded a wrong ‘out’ call to Murray to offer up break point. The Briton obliged with a winning return-of-serve, 5-2, and served it out to rapturous applause in little more than an hour, 6-2.
Then came the tough part, his public interview, and this being Murray, emotions got the better of him, as they have many times before:
“My first match on grass in three years, so I didn’t how I was going to play or feel, but I think for a first match it was good…
“I love playing tennis… sorry [as the tears came and the crowd cheered]. Competing is why you put in all the hard work, so it’s great I’m out here and able to compete again.”
British success in London
With or without Murray, the cinch Championships already had another reason to be cheerful: the results of its home players.
Jack Draper won the first Tour match of his career and, what is more, it was against one of tennis’s fastest rising stars, fellow 19-year-old and the No3 seed Jannik Sinner, 7-6, 7-6. Draper, who reached the final of the Wimbledon junior tournament in 2018, went 0-4 down against the teenage Italian, a player ranked 286 places above him, before producing a stunning comeback.
He next plays the tall Kazakh, No39 Alexander Bublik, who beat Jeremy Chardy.
No41-ranked Cameron Norrie won his first match at Queen’s with a come-back over Albert Ramos-Vinolas, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. But although Norrie has put together some strong results through the clay swing, he next meets No5 seed Aslan Karatsev, who has enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2021 with a run to the Australian semis and his first title in Dubai.
Evans drew a capacity crowd [25 percent of Queen’s usual numbers] against Popyrin, who won the Singapore title earlier this year. The in-form Briton was certainly not intimidated by the Aussie who is a decade his junior and more than 20cm taller, and a break in each set sealed the deal, 6-4, 6-4—his first Queen’s match. He next plays Adrian Mannarino.
But a last word for Murray. His parting shot, ahead of his 15th appearance on his home turf, said as much about the great Briton as anyone needed to know:
“I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but the reason why I’m still playing is because I love playing tennis…. I want to keep trying and still have the desire to go out there and compete and to train every day to try and improve and give myself a chance to keep going. Yeah, create more memories on the court and get more wins.”
Today, he filed his latest memory: his 31st Queen’s match-win, his first in singles since 2016.