US Open 2021: Murray bows out in battling style to Tsitsipas in five sets and five hours
Evans digs deep to reach Round 2, but Konta withdraws, and Watson and Dart lose openers
Court 10 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre at Flushing Meadows was the place to head for British fans on the very first day of action at the last Major of the year, the US Open.
All but one of the British players opening on Monday were scheduled on that court, beginning with the top-ranked British man, No24 seed Dan Evans. He took on the 93-ranked Thiago Monteiro in the Brazilian’s first main-draw match at the US Open.
Evans had struggled with form in recent weeks after contracting Covid, missing the Olympics as a result, and lost his first matches in Washington, Toronto and Cincinnati. But he had never lost in the first round of the US Open.
After winning the first set, 6-3, he missed out on a set-point in the second set tie-break, losing it, 7-6(6). Indeed, he looked depleted, lacking energy, but he continued to battle hard in the gruelling conditions—almost 30 degrees and 80 percent humidity.
Evans got another break chance at 5-4 in the third, and found the net on a passing shot. But on the next, Monteiro picked up his second time-violation to lose his first serve, and Evans stepped in to take full advantage for the set, 6-4.
He then had treatment to his foot, while Monteiro took the long walk to the locker rooms for a comfort break. The Briton, though, looked increasingly energized in the fourth set, attacked the net, and broke twice for a 4-0 lead. The Brazilian could only win one more game, and Evans headed to Round 2, 6-1.
Next up was Heather Watson against Kaja Juvan, with the Briton seeking her first win in New York at her 10th attempt. But once more, she fell at the first hurdle, 6-1, 6-4.
Then it was meant to be the turn of former world No4 Johanna Konta, who enjoyed her Major breakthrough run at the US Open in 2015, making the fourth round. She went on to reach the semis of the other three Majors, but was now down at No47 after a prolonged knee problem, then a Covid infection before Wimbledon.
And although she beat Elina Svitolina in Montreal a few weeks back, she had to withdraw from the next match. Hers always promised to be a tricky opener against Kristina Mladenovic, who had won all five previous matches, but in the event, Konta again had to pull out.
Last up was the other British man enjoying seeded status in New York, Cameron Norrie, but the No26 seed had a particularly difficult opener against one of the most promising new players on the tour, Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz.
The Briton was enjoying the best season of his career, winning his first title from four finals to reach a career high, and posting a personal-best 37 wins in 2021.
Alcaraz reached his own career-high of 54 at age 18 just a month ago. By winning Umag this year, he became the youngest champion since 2008, and had been ticking off other ‘youngest ever’ boxes, too.
But most British fans, and good many others, would be focusing on the Arthur Ashe arena for the opening match of 2012 champion Andy Murray.
The former world No1 had been through the wringer in recent years, not least major hip surgery in January 2019, and the very real prospect of never playing again. But he had worked his way back, hindered like his colleagues by a Covid closure in 2020, and then by a series of injuries to groin and thigh—plus contracting Covid itself.
So after Rotterdam in February, he did not play until Queen’s, and reached only the second round in both Cincinnati and Winston Salem. But his biggest problem was the draw: He was pulled out of the computer to face the No3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas for the first time.
The Greek, 11 years Murray’s junior, was increasingly carving out a place as one of the best young players on the circuit. He made the final of Roland Garros this summer—ultimately losing from two sets up to Novak Djokovic—and won his first Masters title in Monte-Carlo. He had accumulated more wins this year than anyone, 48, and made the semis of both hard-court Masters on the way to New York. Could he, then, inflict Murray’s first ever first-round defeat at the US Open?
Murray pushed Tsitsipas to deuce in the Greek’s opening service game, and then broke him in the third, forcing over-hit forehands from the nervy younger man to take a 2-1 lead.
He fist-pumped his box and then the arena: The crowd were right behind him, delighted to see their former champion back. He consolidated with an easy hold, 3-1, and not content with that, he chased down drop shots, fired a signature forehand winner, and broke again, 4-1. Could he possibly maintain this intensity and energy?
Tsitsipas at last made an easy hold with big serving for a second game, leaving Murray to serve it out. It proved to be the Briton’s hardest game so far, as Tsitsipas began to find both pace and accuracy. On set point, the Greek threw up a perfect lob winner, but on the second, Murray sealed it, 6-2, and saluted the crowd.
It had been an exhausting 42 minutes, but Tsitsipas’s form was certainly on the up. He threw in three love holds, and forced Murray to save two break points along the way to a 3-2 lead.
Murray then earned two break chances of his own at 4-4, annulled by great serving from the Greek, and it went to a tie-break, with both men drenched in sweat. Indeed Murray slipped over in one of many cat-and-mouse exchanges, and complained to his team that he could get no grip with his shoes. He could not convert two set points, either, and although he saved one against the Greek for 7-7 as the clock hit two hours, he was distracted, double faulted, and Tsitsipas levelled, 7-6(7).
Both left the court to change their clothes, and Murray returned in calmer mood, though without replacement shoes, and broke quickly to take a 3-0 lead. He then had to save a marathon 10-minute game and four break points to maintain his lead, and held again for 5-2 with some creative all-court shot-making.
He was up against it as he served for the match, but was bold, serve-and-volleyed for the first time to earn set point, and went for the lines to convert: 6-3, three hours.
Now Tsitsipas called the trainer to work on his left foot, but whatever the problem, it seemed not to impede his tennis, and he smothered Murray’s efforts with two breaks to race to 5-0. Murray was struggling to win easy points on his own serve, his legs perhaps beginning to feel the strain. He got on the board in the sixth game, and then against the run of play, ripped a forehand winner to break, 5-2. The Greek would have to serve it out, and he did, 6-3, after almost four hours.
Tsitsipas, after a long comfort break that got under the skin of Murray, broke immediately in the decider, and fended off a break-back point against chanting support for the Briton. And so it went: Murray continued to seeth, but continued to fight, yet the Greek remained calm under pressure, and served out the match, 6-4, in just 10 minutes under five hours.
He was cheered from the court, and waved his thanks, but the question hanging over the 34-year-old’s loss is, will he be back? He will hope, as we all will.
Elsewhere, the teenage qualifier, Emma Raducanu, discovered she would not take on No13 seed Jennifer Brady come Day 2, after the American pulled out injury. Instead, she would face lucky loser Stefanie Voegele.
Fellow qualifier Harriet Dart started well to win the first set, 7-6(6), against Caroline Garcia, but needed a medical time in the second set, and ultimately lost, 4-6, 2-6.