A day and a half after seemingly dragging his body to its limits, Andy Murray was back and at it again. He started his third-round match a shadow of himself, barely even able to move, but then he loosened up. He began to play. One fist pump at a time, he let every single onlooker know. Somehow, he ended up snatching a set for himself.
It was a thrilling last stand that encapsulated his resilience and grit, but it was not enough. As Murray’s immense workload finally caught up with him, his resurgent Australian Open came to an end as he fell 6-1, 6-7(7), 6-3, 6-4 to Roberto Bautista Agut.
Afterwards Murray said that he felt mixed emotions but he was proud of how he handled himself throughout the week. “I feel like I gave everything that I had to this event. So I’m proud of that. That is really, whatever you’re doing, all you can do. You can’t always control the outcome. You can’t control how well you’re going to play or the result. You can control the effort that you put into it, and I gave everything that I had the last three matches.”
Before the redux of the classic 2019 matchup that nearly retired Murray, which Bautista Agut won in five sets, the only important question was just how well, if at all, Murray could recover. Between his unforgettable five-set wins over Matteo Berrettini, the 13th seed, and Thanasi Kokkinakis, he had been on court for 10 hours and 34 minutes.
In the early stages, the spectacle was grim. Murray continually clutched parts of his body and he moved almost at walking pace. When he attempted to rush the net, he watched passing shots fly by him before he had even reached the service line. Murray said that although he did not feel terribly tired in his legs, he was struggling with his lower back after playing so much tennis. Between points, his discomfort was clear.
“I couldn’t really extend on my serves,” he said. “I couldn’t hit a kick serve. I couldn’t really sort of extend my back on the serve to generate much power on the first serve.”
Murray won just one point in the opening three games and Bautista Agut breezed through the opening set. The Spaniard then broke serve for a 6-1, 2-1 lead after Murray’s legs crumpled on a second serve, leading to a double fault.
Even in those early stages, when his prospects seemed hopeless, Murray fought desperately. When he clinched his first game at 1-3, he vigorously pumped his fist to the roaring crowd. Each of his few tiny victories were celebrated with outsized cheers. His passion rallied the Margaret Court Arena crowd, whose screams soundtracked every successful move.
One of the fascinating spectacles in tennis is the mental stress that an injured or physically compromised player can cause to an opponent. The pressure, from Murray and the crowd alike, slowly seeped inside Bautista Agut and, as he tightened up, Murray’s shoulders opened.
“I think he knows well how to play a Grand Slam match,” said Bautista Agut. “He understands the game very well, and he knows how to play with a crowd, how to play with the nerves of the opponent.”
Powered by adrenaline and pure desire, Murray pulled off some absurd shotmaking, pounding running forehands and delicate drop shots while even outlasting Bautista Agut in long, high-octane rallies. From 2-4 down, Murray forced a tie-break and he won it with two breathless rallies with outlandish drop shots and upon stealing the set, Murray stared out at his audience with his hands on his hips, his face a picture of utter disbelief as he received a standing ovation.
But Bautista Agut regained his composure and reverted to type, interrogating Murray’s movement and shot tolerance. Even as Murray’s legs began to fail him once more, his service speeds cascading as he stumbled out of groundstrokes, he fought and forced Bautista Agut to play at a high level to take the match. He did, striking 50 winners to just 29 unforced errors, holding his nerve in the important moments and succeeding where many other players would have failed.
Once the dust settles after a difficult ending, there will be even more positives for the former world No 1 to take from his run. He showed once more that he is playing quality tennis, he is capable of competing with and defeating the best players in the world, and he should look towards the rest of his season with his head held high.
“I can have a deeper run than the third round of a slam, there’s no question about that,” said Murray. “Obviously draws can open up for you. I need to also help myself with that. If I was playing at this level last year, I probably wouldn’t be ranked 50, 60 in the world. It’s up to me to try and change that.”
Despite his lower-back complaints, Murray believes he will be fine with a short period of rest. He is next planning to compete in Rotterdam, which begins on 11th February, and he will hope that his momentum continues to build.
Earlier, Dan Evans bowed out in the third round to Andrey Rublev, the fifth seed, who played an excellent match to power through Evans in straight sets, winning 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.