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 United States Open, as Murray flirted with elimination all afternoon and somehow pulled out a win after 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,” Murray said when the four 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 baseliner who, though just 5-foot-7, can puzzle opponents with both 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.
This U.S. Open was always going to be a strange test for Murray. 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 back hands and 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. 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 survived the first tiebreaker just barely, and 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. When Murray prevailed in the fourth-set tiebreaker, his fellow players filled the stadium with applause.
The fifth set brought Murray to the brink again. Nishioka broke Murray to go up 3-2, only to have Murray break back to tie the set.
Up 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.
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. “My body hurts.”