Indian Wells 2021: Marvellous Murray battles to win over teenage star Alcaraz
Wild card Murray fights back from a set down to win after more than three hours
The last time Andy Murray played in Indian Wells, in 2017, he was world No1, but repeated hip surgery went on to hit his form, his results and his ranking.
A year after what had looked like a career-ending operation early in 2019 came the coronavirus shut-down, and the tournament where Murray was scheduled to open his 2020 season after another injury set-back became the first to pull the plug for a five-month hiatus. That was Indian Wells, and Murray had to wait until Cincinnati.
As if he had not contended with enough, 2021 rubbed salt into the wound: Covid infection halted his plans to travel to Australia, and then a groin injury sidelined him until the grass season.
It amounted to a long and potentially soul-destroying few years during which the fight to regain fitness and form had been desperately frustrating.
But finally, Murray got his feet on some competition courts, battled hard in five-setters at Wimbledon and the US Open—and his marathon five-set loss to No3 Stefanos Tsitsipas spoke volumes for the level of Murray’s tennis—and continued the battle to regain something like his old form in Metz and San Diego. In both cases, he lost to the eventual champion.
But ranked outside the top 100, even with the benefit of wild cards, Murray could still not avoid big names early in the draw. Indeed at Indian Wells, he also had to play an opening match while the 32 seeds enjoyed byes. That first match was a good test, against the dangerous leftie Adrian Mannarino, but now he faced a seed, and one of the brightest young prospects to emerge on the tour as Murray was going through his trials.
For the Briton faced the brilliant teenager Carlos Alcaraz, seeded 30, up from 115 as recently as the French Open. The young Spaniard went on to win his first title in Umag and made the quarters at the US Open, where he beat Tsitsipas in a fifth-set tiebreaker. And much like compatriot Rafael Nadal, with whom the teenager has already been compared, he was already ticking off youngest-ever milestones, most recently the youngest US Open men’s quarter-finalist in the Open era.
Even so, Murray had looked supremely relaxed since arriving in Indian Wells, and kept the social media airwaves busy first with his appeal to recover his lost tennis shoes and wedding ring, and then news of the recovery.
But was Murray’s body ready to take on the lightning fast and super-fit man almost half his age, 34 to Alcaraz’s 18?
He certainly stole a march in the first few games, showcasing several of the weapons in his armory: drop shot, ace, sliced backhand, for a comfortable hold. Meanwhile, Alcaraz, playing his first match since an injury retirement during that US Open quarter-final, was missing his timing in the hot and high-bouncing confines of Court 2. He double faulted and hit two wild forehands to concede the break, 2-0.
Serving 0-3 down, Alcaraz had to pull back from 0-40, and gradually his timing kicked in. He faced another break point, but got the fist and the legs pumping, offered up a drop-shot winner of his own, and held.
Again, he took a leaf out of Murray’s book with a brilliant lob winner to open the fifth game. The Briton held, but the full gamut of the Alcaraz game showed up for a love hold, 4-2, with some mighty forehands and big swinging first serves.
Alcaraz turned his aggressive, attacking tennis onto the Murray’s serve, and got the reward of a break courtesy of a double fault: all square again.
Murray was not able to convert a set point in the 10th game, despite a couple of rash errors from the youngster, and then went 0-40 down on his own serve with two over-hit strikes. A cracking backhand from Alcaraz did the job, he broke, and had the opportunity to serve out the set.
After more than an hour of intense, full-blooded tennis, the teenager led, 7-5.
There was plenty of variety early in the second set, not least an under-arm ace from Murray to hold for 2-1. But he was getting into deep water in long rallies, no more so than in an 11-minute fifth game, saving break points, but finally holding, 3-2.
All at once, Alcaraz threw in a wayward game riddled with errors, Murray broke, and went on to serve for the set. It was an eventful game of net-cords, errors, and great defence, but Murray got it done, 6-3.
The Briton rode his advantage into the decider, breaking immediately, and had more break chances in the third game. But he broke a string, lost focus, and Alcaraz got on the board. However, a love hold followed a stunning cross-court forehand winner for Murray, and the young Spaniard scattered errors to offer up another break, 4-1.
But with the Briton serving, Alcaraz injured his foot, and there was an extended delay mid-game to repair the damage. Murray, though, continued to pepper the Spaniard’s backhand and more often than not the error came. A hold for Murray, 5-1, and he finished the win, 6-2, with a serve-and-volley winner after more than three hours.
It had been gruelling, intense and gutsy from both men, and Alcaraz is surely destined for great things. But he came up against the full Murray package—experience, passion, and smart tactics—and as fit as he has been in a long time.
The challenges only grow harder: Next in line for Round 3 should be the No3 seed Alexander Zverev, winner of Olympic gold, and the Masters in Madrid and Cincinnati, though he was still in the midst of a test against Jenson Brooksby.
Other winners on first Sunday:
Iga Swiatek beat Veronika Kudermetova
Matteo Berrettini beat Alejandro Tabilo
Jannik Sinner beat John Millman
Gael Monfils beat Gianluca Mager
Taylor Fritz beat Brandon Nakashima
Kevin Anderson beat Lorenzo Sonego [No17 seed]
Shelby Rogers beat Irina-Camelia Begu
Fabio Fognini beat Jan-Lennard Struff
Elina Svitolina beat Sorana Cirstea
Cristian Garin beat Ernesto Escobedo
Albert Ramos-Vinolas beat Felix Auger-Aliassime [No7 seed]
Pablo Carreno Busta beat Emilio Gomez