Scot battles back from brink to win stunning US Open five-setter
“An unprecedented adventure,” was how Andy Murray’s former coach Mark Petchey – commentating on Amazon Prime – described our experience of following his career. This was another of those glorious moments, as the greatest son of British tennis came back from a two-set deficit to defeat Yoshihito Nishioka in 4hr 38min.
Murray clenched his fists and roared as he saluted his 4-6, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 victory, which he brought up with a magnificent forehand lob. It is hard to see how he will be able to drag himself back on to the court tomorrow. But never mind. This was the sort of win he must have been dreaming of when he forced himself through those endless hours of mind-numbing rehab, strengthening the muscles around his new metal hip.
After all the chat, all the build-up, Murray’s performance during the first 2½ sets had been mysteriously flat. Although he won the opening point with another lovely lob, it soon became clear that he was not operating at full power.
“At the beginning of the match I was apprehensive about playing a long match,” he told on-court interviewer Rennae Stubbs at the end. “You pace yourself. You sort of do that as a junior. Once I got two sets down, I had to put the afterburners on and managed to come through.
“I had to start striking the ball better, I was hitting it late and tentative, then I went and took too many chances and made too many errors. I didn’t have the balance. I got that towards the end, and was dictating more points with my forehand.”
In his first meeting with a modern tennis legend, Nishioka must have been surprised by Murray’s early lack of urgency. Yet he did not hesitate to take advantage, working the long rallies that he thrives on and occasionally firing in a 90mph forehand up the line. Nishioka may stand only 5ft 7in, but he is so tactically acute that you could imagine him being a Go grandmaster on the side.
Why was Murray not fully present? Apart from his apprehension over whether he would last the course, there was also the eerie experience of playing in an empty stadium that would normally hold almost 23,000.
The stands were not completely empty, in fact. Apart from the bizarre digital faces that pop up as part of the US Open’s technological investment, there were numerous famous players dotted around the suites that would normally be occupied by corporate clients.
Naomi Osaka was probably there to cheer her Japanese compatriot on, while this year’s Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin showed up. The list of men read like a who’s who of modern tennis: Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kyle Edmund and Alexander Zverev – whom Murray had overcome last week at the Western and Southern Open. When Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas joined the viewing gallery, Murray must have felt an intense desire to impress the next generation.
Of course, Murray’s own backroom staff were living every point with him as usual. He has his own suite on Arthur Ashe Stadium, and has been accompanied here by his Shane Annun, who will no doubt have the devil’s own job patching his body back together after this marathon, as well as his long-suffering coach Jamie Delgado, who for most of the match looked like a seasick sailor navigating a giant thunderstorm.
Murray dropped the first set and then lapsed into a fug of inactivity and confusion. Within a few minutes, he was 4-0 down in the second – and though he avoided the dreaded 6-0 “bagel”, he was soon down a break in the third as well.
Somehow, though, the old competitive juices began to stir. The feet slotted into position. That backhand of the ages found its mark a few times. The moment when the real Murray arrived was perhaps the one when a Nishioka return pushed him so wide of the court that he slammed his forehand around the net, rather than over it. Incredibly, Nishioka was playing so well that he still got the ball back and won the point. But never mind. From Murray’s perspective, when you start playing that sort of shot, you know that your sights are back on the target.
Nothing was easy here. In order to draw level, Murray had to play two full-length sets, which he finally grasped on the tie-break with a fusillade of big serves and aggressive forehands. The same sense of timing saw him produce some monumental winners in the final game of the match.
Afterwards, he told Stubbs: “My toes are the worst part. The big toes on both sides are pretty beat up. But I did all right, physically.
“My body hurts. I need to recover as best as possible. I need an ice bath now. They say that there is one in the locker room, but it’s only for emergencies. For me, this is an emergency. That was by far the most tennis I have played since the 2019 Aussie Open.”
Job done: Andy Murray celebrates after sealing his marathon victory over Yoshihito Nishioka in the first round of the US Open after being two sets down and surviving match point
Digging deep: Andy Murray serves to Yoshihito Nishioka during a gruelling 4hr 38min contest