By Matthew Futterman
Andy Murray has made an art form out of playing on the edge and counterpunching his way out of danger. That talent was on display in full force Tuesday at the U.S. Open, as Murray flirted with elimination all afternoon and somehow pulled out a win in a nearly five-hour match with Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan, 4-6, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4.
“I’m tired,” the 33-year-old Murray said when the 4 hour, 39-minute match was over. “My toes are the worst.”
Getting into a marathon slugfest with Nishioka was a terrible idea for Murray, who is still early in his singles comeback from hip replacement surgery. He had little choice, though.
Nishioka, 24, is a steady baseline player who, though just 5-foot-7, can puzzle opponents with his relentlessness and ability to mix up his shots. In other words, a smaller and so far less effective version of Murray, but with two healthy hips.
Coming back from a career-threatening injury as Murray is trying to do is always a fraught, risky endeavor. That is especially the case right now, with the coronavirus pandemic disrupting tennis and so many other sports.
Normally, Murray would play a series of smaller tournaments to sharpen his game against lesser competition, gain rankings points and then hopefully get a seed at a major tournament. That would protect him from top opponents for a round or two.
But with the tennis world on hiatus from March until August, there was little opportunity for Murray to play himself into Grand Slam form. The challenge of long, withering matches was going to come quickly. Was he still fast enough to cover the court? Could he last five sets after so much time away from Grand Slam tennis?
The early answers — yes, and yes, at least against the No. 49 player in the world. This was Murray being so Murray, carrying on that high-volume dialogue with himself throughout, spraying flat backhands, topspin lobs and the soft drop shots that once carried him to the world No. 1 ranking.
Murray played from behind nearly all afternoon, dropping the first two sets and then going down a break early in the third as he struggled to find his rhythm and beat so many forehands into the middle of the net.
He said he started out too tentative, then overcompensated by taking too many chances. He popped a string during one crucial point and could not figure out how to break Nishioka’s relatively soft serve, which averages less than 100 mph. But then he somehow worked his way into a third-set tiebreaker, chasing down drop shots and even bending a forehand around the side of the net.
He barely survived the first tiebreaker. When he did he let out a primal scream, trying to will a higher level of play out of his 6-foot-3-inch frame.
Crowds are hard to come by at the U.S. Open this year, but Murray managed to attract one. As the fourth set moved into the later stages and especially in the tiebreaker, players began appearing in the seats of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, popped out of his luxury suite, one which he and all seeded players here each were assigned to take in any action during their downtime. Amanda Anisimova, the 19-year-old American who won her first-round match earlier on Tuesday, took a seat in the lower bowl.
Murray beat back a match point for Nishioka in the fourth set, and when he prevailed in the fourth-set tiebreaker, his fellow players filled the otherwise-empty 22,000-seat stadium with applause, or at least tried their best.
“It’s rare you have lots of players watching your match,” Murray said. “In some ways, that can be a little distracting.”
Murray’s father-in-law was also watching, as was his brother, Jamie, and he noticed some of the other British players had come out.
“Although the atmosphere was very flat, at the end as I was starting to turn it around and I could see some faces in different points of the court to see some encouragement,” Murray said. “That definitely helps.”
The fifth set brought Murray to the brink again. Nishioka broke Murray to go up 3-2, only to have Murray, who had noticed that Nishioka could sometimes struggle to make a service break stick, break back to tie the set. Somehow, he saved his best tennis for the final games, landing 79% of his first serves in the final set and nailing 16 of his 64 winners.
Ahead 5-4 and desperate for a break to end the match, Murray crushed a cross-court backhand to get to match point, then finished off the comeback with a topspin lob that Nishioka could not put on the court. It was the 179th point Murray won on Tuesday afternoon. Nishioka won 176.
The win had Murray, a devotee of ice baths for recovery, desperate to find freezing water. There is one in the men’s locker room, but it is only supposed to be used in cases of emergency during this pandemic-era tournament, as officials try to limit how much time players spend together in indoor spaces.
“For me this is an emergency,” Murray said after his longest match since the 2019 Australian Open. (He ultimately was allowed to soak.) “My body hurts.”
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