Andy Murray battles to first Major match-win since hip surgery
Konta beats compatriot Watson; Evans win makes it four Brit men in Round 2
There were many things to disrupt the focus of former champion and No1 Andy Murray as he embarked on his first match at a Grand Slam since considering retirement at the Australian Open in 2019.
During that 18-month gap, the Briton underwent major hip surgery, and an uncertain tennis future. But of course, the circumstances of his return to the site of his first Major victory are challenging for everyone—metal hip or not: the coronavirus pandemic has seen to that.
But as he prepared to take on the fast, tricky, creative Japanese player Yoshihito Nishioka, it was the immediate surroundings that ate into Murray’s concentration.
He had not, it seemed, registered that the Arthur Ashe matches had line-judges, unlike the other match-courts. There was not a line-judge to be seen during last week’s Cincinnati Masters, played at the same venue.
Then there were the fan ‘screens’ erected court-side, to provide, they tell us, encouragement and support for the players. Taken alongside the artificial ‘crowd soundtrack’, it verges on an out-of-body experience for playing tennis.
All these factors, combined with so long away from competitive tennis, and it is little wonder that Murray was slow out of the blocks.
Nishioka broke in the seventh game of the first set, and served it out, 6-4. Then he broke in the first game of the second set, too. Murray was spraying errors, struggling to find his first serve, and muttered about being ‘flat’. In contrast, Nishioka was a bundle of energy, and Murray was broken again, courtesy of 22 errors to just nine from his opponent, 0-3.
Serving at 0-4 down, Murray had to find some inspiration through repeated deuces to hold, and got one of the breaks back, but he could not get another. He broke a string on set-point to send a forehand long, and Nishioka had the second set, 6-4.
It got no better at the start of the third, with Murray looking flat and unable to inject any real intensity into his tennis. By the time Nishioka broke in the opening game, Murray had made 33 unforced errors. The Japanese man held to love, 3-1, and Murray looked as though he would rather be anywhere else.
However, Nishioka wavered, and double faulted on break point: 3-3. Murray faced danger again in the ninth game, down break point, but again Nishioka let the Briton off the hook. Murray then had to fend off three more break points, but held for 6-5 with a couple of inspired backhand volleys.
Sure enough, it went to a tie-break, and Murray looked more engaged than at any time in the match, egging himself on with “Come on, let’s go!” He worked two set points, and served it out, 7-6(5).
Murray again had to dig deep to hold his first game in the fourth set, and faced break points in the sixth game, too. He held, but serving at 5-6, Nishioka came up with two blistering passes to earn match point.
However, Murray’s serve came good, and it went to another tie-break, which the Briton served out, 7-6(4), only to call the medic to look at an injured toe.
Come the fifth set, Nishioka reapplied the pressure to get the first break, 3-2, but Murray broke straight back with a perfect lob winner. By now, the player suites that surround the vast show court were filling with some admiring fellow players—among them, Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov, Stefanos Tsitsipas. It was a compelling drama, but finally some classic Murray blood-and-guts play broke the Japanese man to win the match, 6-4.
It had taken 4hrs 38mins, and the only plus ahead of his Round 2 match is that his next opponent, No15 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, took around four hours to beat Thiago Monteiro.
Murray was, he admitted, desperate to get an ice bath, but the on-site facility is only for emergency use. The Briton said, with a wry tone, that he believed his was indeed an emergency. He explained,
“That’s by far the most tennis I’ve played since Bautista-Agut at the Aussie Open in 2019… I’m tired, but my toes are the worst part. The big toes on both sides are pretty beat up.”
He then explained his mind-set on returning to best-of-five competition:
“At the beginning of the match I was apprehensive about playing a long match because I hadn’t played one in a while. I was sort of pacing myself. Once I got two sets down I had to start putting the after-burners on… I had to start striking the ball a bit better. I was hitting the ball a bit late, a bit tentatively… I didn’t have the balance right. At the end I started to get the balance. I had to change a few things for sure.”
Murray’s two seeded compatriots certainly had an easier time of it.
No9 seed Johanna Konta faced the only other British woman in the draw, Heather Watson. She seemed to have the decisive break in the first set, 5-4, only to deliver enough errors to allow Watson the break back.
Both looked tight as they headed to a tie-break, and Watson failed to convert two break chances to clinch her first ever set against Konta. She had four more chances to close out the hour-and-a-quarter first set, too, but Konta’s serving thwarted her: Konta led, 7-6(7).
Konta had won all four sets in their previous meetings, so this was now an uphill task for the 54-ranked Briton. Indeed, Watson has yet to win a single match in 10 visits to the US Open. Sure enough, Konta raced to a swift lead, breaking twice and holding to love with an ace, 5-0. She went on to serve out the win, 6-1, after an hour and three-quarters.
Konta next plays the 77-ranked Sorana Cirstea, who she beat in their only previous meeting three years ago. But this remains one of the toughest segments of the draw, with Venus Williams a possible opponent in the third round and maybe a rematch with Victoria Azarenka, in the fourth. The Belarusian beat Konta and went on to win the Cincinnati title last weekend.
Top Briton Dan Evans was 6-2, 6-1 up in just over an hour against the former US Open junior champion, Thiago Seyboth Wild, but the youngster stretched Evans harder in the third set, taking it to a tie-break. The quality from both men soared, but Evans drew the key error to take set and match after two hours, 7-6(5).
Evans’ win meant that there will be four British men in the second round of the US Open for the first time since 1974: Evans, Murray, Cameron Norrie and Kyle Edmund. And as things stand, Evans may have to face Murray in the third round— but that will be a very big ask for the former champion with the metal hip.