The flesh may be weakening but Andy Murray’s spirit is as strong as ever, and on Tuesday night he produced a sensational comeback on his return to Grand Slam tennis.
The 33 year-old Scot and his bionic hip took down Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka 4-6 4-6 7-6 7-6 6-4 to make the second round of the US Open with yet another never say die performance.
Down a match point in the fourth set and a break in the decider he refused to lie down, and eventually broke his opponent’s spirit to win in four hours and 40 minutes.
Andy Murray sealed a stunning comeback in the US Open first round vs Yoshihito Nishioka
The former world No 1 took down Nishioka 4-6 4-6 7-6 7-6 6-4 at Flushing Meadows
The pair embrace at the net following the thrilling first-round contest at the US Open
After his victory, Murray admitted he was apprehensive of going the distance against Nishioka
Seemingly faster than the bullet train in his retrieving around the baseline, Murray was well aware of the threat that the Japanese world number 48 posed when he walked out onto the vast, deserted Arthur Ashe Stadium.
This was always going to be a difficult reintroduction to best-of-five-tennis after a 20-month absence. Nishioka has only been playing exhibitions during lockdown at home until now, but the diminutive left-hander was good enough to defeat Dan Evans in straight sets at January’s Australian Open.
Despite the clear and present danger Murray came out desperately flat, for all that he opened proceedings with a magnificent lob on the very first point in his first singles Major since Melbourne 2019.
For a long while it looked like he was going to acquit himself way worse than on that emotional evening when he fought back from two sets down to force Spanish workhorse Roberto Bautista Agut to five sets. By remarkable coincidence, the first four sets mirrored the scoreline of that match.
It ended in heartbreak for Nishioka after being in a commanding two-set lead in the first round
Murray had to dig deep against Nishioka to ensure his stay at the US Open wasn’t brief
An early break point was squandered and then Murray, who was landing only four out of ten first serves in the court, went behind for 4-3.
There was little penetration on his first serve, the forehand could not punch any holes and he was getting repeatedly passed at the net for the first hour and a half.
Nishioka seemed to be comfortably playing within himself as he went up 4-0 in the second, and the question raised itself about whether the Scot had been hiding some injury setback from the past few days.
His body language was lifeless and he looked every inch the world number 115 – which is the reality after his prolonged absence from the tour – and it was difficult to credit that only last week he had beaten American Frances Tiafoe and Germany’s world number seven Alex Zverev.
Of course 33 used to be considered fairly ancient for a tennis player, and the Scot was playing like a throwback to that era. Among the surprising aspects was how little success he was having against his opponent’s eminently attackable second serve.
Murray showed plenty of tiredness but found that grit to enjoy an incredible comeback
It appeared as if Nishioka would prove too much for Murray after racing into a two-set lead
Starved of any atmosphere to feed off the in the 25,000-seat arena, the scene of so many triumphs, he vaguely stirred at 0-4 down in the second, when his first ‘doughnut’ set beckoned since Roger Federer wiped him out at London’s 02 Arena in 2014.
Most of his openings came through creeping unforced errors on the Japanese side, and it was only after more than two hours’ play that we started to see a more familiar version of Murray.
He recovered an early break in the third, showcasing his volleying skills, and gradually he began to crank up his forehand. In the tiebreak he repeatedly struck out off that flank to edge ahead of his opponent. He made no mistake after getting ahead for 6-4, clinching his second set point by forcing his opponent back in the court and finally letting out the old war cry.
In the locker room the players know that Murray is less explosive, not the physical specimen he once was, but that sooner or later his fighting spirit is likely to come to the fore. What was strange on Tuesday night was just how long that process took, possibly connected to the feeling of inertia created by the empty stands.
Murray was playing his first Grand Slam singles match in 596 days after injury rehabilitation
There was an eerie feel at the US Open as Murray battled it out with his Japanese opponent
The low, skiddy serve from the other end was continuing to cause Murray problems and he struggled to gain any headway against it in the fourth, while regularly having to fend off break points. It was to Nishioka’s credit that he did not allow the disappointment of the tiebreak to cause any major momentum swing.
It was the former world number one having strain every sinew to stay in the match. Two uncharacteristically poor volleys led to him facing a first match point at 5-6, but a pinpoint first serve that Nishioka returned long saved him and secured the second tiebreak.
The less experienced player’s nerve then proved the weaker and, with over four hours already on the clock, Murray took it into the denouement 7-4 with some.
The last of the British male quartet to play their first round was in action on Tuesday night, national number one Evans taking on Brazil’s Thiago Seyboth Wild.
* Austria’s Dominic Thiem, who was in first round action on Tuesday night, was given an unusual code violation for ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ before he had even taken to the court. The official USTA explanation was that members of his entourage had been found not to be wearing their compulsory masks in all areas around the site.
* Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro, the former world number six, has announced that she has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and that she faces six months of chemotherapy treatment.