In the end, it wasn’t #shoegate that threw Andy Murray off course, rather the quality of opponent on the other side of the net.
As Murray slipped and slided in sweaty trainers towards the end of the second set it looked as though the oversight from him – or his coaching team, or both – to not pack any spare footwear would be what cost him a shot at his first top-five win in four-and-a-half years. With Murray lamenting those in his box for being ‘under-prepared’, then plugging the air conditioning tube on Arthur Ashe Stadium into his only pair of trainers in a desperate attempt to dry them after losing the second set, it seemed as though things were going awry.
But Murray put his best foot forward. And even though he went down in agonising style in a five-set thriller against third seed Stefanos Tsitisipas, this was one of his best performances in years – and one that should offer optimism for the future. Tsitisipas has won more matches on the ATP Tour than anyone else in 2021, yet for three sets he was largely outplayed by Murray, and had it not been for those sweat-soaked trainers the match might well have been over before the world No 3 could turn it around.
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Success has been hard to come by for Murray since his initial hip surgery in January 2018 and the additional injuries that have followed. He has dropped outside the top 100 in the world and hasn’t won more than two matches at a top-tier tournament since lifting his last title in October 2019. Even if he beat Tsitsipas it was very unlikely to be a precursor to him winning the US Open for a second time, but this was a very timely reminder that Murray does still have it. He’s always had the desire, commitment and will to continue playing, but on one of the biggest stages in tennis he showed that he still has the game too.
Tstisipas did not under-estimate Murray – “he's still on” he said ahead of the match – but he was blown away in a one-sided first set. Murray’s serve in particular stood out, only firing down one ace but seeing 56 per cent of his serves go unreturned. Mark Petchey, who is part of Murray's coaching team, said that Murray has changed his ball toss slightly and his body is allowing him to throw the ball in the right place. Murray also made brilliant passing shots, volleys, and drop volleys, as he won his first set against a top-five player since 2017.
But better was to come. While Murray was helped out in the opening set by some errant play from his opponent, he was still able to match Tstisipas even as his level improved. Murray showed his quality on both wings, hitting powerfully through the ball when needed, and scrambled around the court seemingly without any issues. There was a trademark lob and even though Murray's serve dropped off after the impressive start he wasn’t broken until the fourth set. He also shook off the frustration of failing to close out the second set – and slipping at a vital moment in his soaked trainers – to win the third in solid fashion. The fourth got away from Murray, as did the fifth after he was agitated by the length of the break that Tstisipas took between sets. Whether Tstisipas was using the break strategically or not, he must take credit for the maturity he showed in the fifth set when the crowd were against him and he managed to play some composed tennis to close the match out.
Murray too should take heart from his performance on a stage he clearly loved starring on again. It was at the US Open in 2012 where Murray made his Grand Slam breakthrough, beating Novak Djokovic in a thrilling five-set final to win the first of his three majors. He has often spoken about his love for New York, but in the last few years he has not been able to enjoy the tournament as he would have wanted. In 2017 and 2019 he didn’t play due to injury and in the other two years he was beaten in the second round. New Yorkers clearly still have a liking for Murray - he was the crowd favourite from the start – and he repaid their support by fist pumping and raising his arm in celebration at every opportunity. He also did his best to get the crowd on his side at the start of the fifth set as he complained to the umpire and match referee about Tstisipas taking too long with his toilet break. Murray did not let the incident go and the swift handshake at the conclusion of the match, followed by his continued ranting as he packed his bag, suggested this loss could annoy him for sometime.
But for those who have questioned why Murray is still playing tennis when he has looked so far away from his best, and why he is taking wildcards that could go to other players, this is why. In the end he didn’t need a wildcard to play the US Open after another former champion, Stan Wawrinka, withdrew, but in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, Murray showed exactly why he is still competing and putting himself through all the frustrations and setbacks he has suffered with rehab and trying to get back near the top of the game.
The 34-year-old showed flashes of his best at Wimbledon earlier this summer as he thrilled the Centre Court crowd with late-night wins against Nikoloz Basilashvili and Oscar Otte. But even he was seemingly questioning himself after a somewhat demoralising straight-sets defeat to Denis Shapovalov in the third round.
Compared to Wimbledon, Murray found another level against Tsitsipas. He has spoken over the last year about competing well against some of the top players in practice sessions – and this was proof that he can still do it when it matters too, although there must be some frustration that he was drawn against the third seed in the opening round. With a kinder draw, and playing like this, Murray would have had a strong chance to make the second week of a Slam for the first time since Wimbledon 2017.
As it is, Murray doesn’t leave New York with a win, but he should leave with optimism. If he can maintain this level going forward then there could still be better times ahead. Hopefully he remembers to bring a spare pair of shoes for them.
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