When the US Open revealed that Andy Murray had been drawn in the first round against Stefanos Tsitsipas, the in-form third seed, the reaction from many onlookers was of anguish and pity. Another week, another slice of brutal luck, it was said. In his pre-tournament press conference, Murray was asked about his inability to “catch a break”.
But this is Andy Murray, still a former world No 1, still the most competitive and dogged person in most rooms he has ever entered, and so he simply took it as a challenge to produce his very best tennis. Astoundingly, that is precisely what he did as he so nearly pulled off a monumental win, leading Tsitsipas by two sets to one before gracefully falling 2-6, 7-6(7), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 after four hours and 48 minutes.
Murray started like a dream. He chased down drop shots, he pinned Tsitsipas in his backhand corner and he was decisive when he chose to step in and attack his opponent’s forehand. Each time he sealed another game, he triumphantly raised his racket to the sky. His best set in four long years was topped off by an improved, pacier first serve that continually exposed Tsitsipas’s return of serve.
Throughout the second set, Tsitsipas’s own serve improved and he began to dictate more points with his forehand and the pair eventually found themselves deep in a tiebreak. But no vintage Murray match is without drama and at 5-3, Murray slipped. He had been sweating profusely so his shoes were soaked and slippery. As he became distracted by them, barking towards his box, Tsitsipas played error-free tennis from 4-6 down to recover and take the tiebreak set.
Instead of the tiebreak marking a turning point, Murray breezed to a 3-0 lead in the third set and he handled all challenges by playing with freedom. First he saved four break points at 3-1 with a flurry of huge serving and inventive shotmaking. Then, while serving out the set at 5-3 from 15-30 down, he followed a 92mph forehand winner with a slick serve and volley. He marched to his seat screaming to the crowd: “I’m not fucking done, let’s go!”
Tsitsipas spent the break between sets receiving medical treatment on his foot, yet his discomfort only forced him to a higher level. As he began to shorten the points, his backhand thrived and Murray began to look laboured. Tsitsipas established a 5-0 lead then he held on for 6-3 to force a fifth set.
Ahead of the final set, Tsitsipas went off for his second bathroom break and he did not return for seven minutes. As he waited, Murray complained to the umpire and supervisor, Gerry Armstrong. Then he immediately lost his serve at the beginning of the final set with a thumping forehand return. From that immediate deficit Murray fought until the death, but Tsitsipas crunched forehands and big serves each time he faced pressure. After nearly five hours on court, he closed out the match.
After the way that Murray was dismantled by Denis Shapovalov in the third round of Wimbledon and his early losses in recent US hardcourt events, pushing a top three player to a fifth set certainly did not seem on the cards. But for Murray, this is vindication of so much that he has said all along.
There have been so many opinions about his continued presence in the game; criticism about him taking wildcards into numerous events, pity for a seemingly fading career and even the well-meaning suggestion that he has accepted his current distinction as the 112th ranked player in the world and the early losses.
He has not. As he has struggled through a relentless series of injury niggles over the past 18 months, Murray has constantly maintained that if he is able to figure out his body, he remains capable of playing to a high level, even if he does not quite know what level that is. His logic is simple and convincing: he has not forgotten how to play tennis.
Before the tournament, Murray said that over the past few weeks he has finally been able to train at a regular pace. That was not the case at Wimbledon, where he severely limited his training hours in order to manage a groin injury. Murray was frustrated with his recent level in the US, but for once he has been able to focus on improving his game rather than worrying about merely getting onto the court.
The result, even in defeat, is priceless. Against one of the best players in the world, Murray has shown himself and all others what he is still capable of. He may have lost in the first round, and for the first time in his career there, but he should leave New York emboldened by his performance and desperate for more.