The fans watching through their Zoom apps at home were roaring for Andy Murray in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday. But the former No. 1 hardly seemed to notice as their faces flashed on the big screens next to him at courtside. Murray was too busy doing what he usually does during a tennis match: Muttering under his breath—at himself, at his coach, at the invisible forces all around who were trying to thwart him.

For Murray, of course, these mutterings are signs of affection for the game he plays, and that he has worked so hard to play again. It was obvious during his 4-6, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4 win over Yoshihito Nishioka that Murray relished the chance to take over a Grand Slam stage again, and to make the moment last as long as possible—four hours and 39 minutes, to be exact. Since injuring his hip at Wimbledon in 2017, Murray had played just two Grand Slam tournaments, and he hadn’t made it past the second round either time. After one hip surgery failed, he had even announced his retirement at the start of 2019. Twenty months and another, successful surgery later, Murray, now 33 and very much unretired, made up for his absence in epic fashion by winning his first five-setter in four years.

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Tennis can use Murray's leadership off the court, and his spirit on it

Tennis can use Murray's leadership off the court, and his spirit on it

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Looking back at how this marathon evolved, you might begin to suspect that Murray deliberately prolonged it for dramatic effect. Time and again, he allowed Nishioka to push him to the brink of defeat; time and again, he pulled an 11th-hour Houdini act to escape. Murray began by falling behind a set and 0-4; from there, he came all the way back to 4-5 before finally surrendering, 6-4. Down two sets to love, he was broken early in the third and looked physically spent. Instead of throwing in the towel, though, he started his charge.

The comeback began with a “Come on!” here, and a fist-pump there, as Murray willed the competitive juices to flow again. From there, Murray’s serve improved, and he abandoned his usual cautious approach for an all-out forehand attack, which he rode to a narrow win in the third-set tiebreaker.

But one comeback wasn’t enough for Murray today. At 5-6 in the fourth set, Nishioka was a point away from victory, and he went up an early break again in the fifth. Each time Nishioka put his nose in front, though, Murray responded. Whatever shot he needed, he found. Some of them—the drop volleys, the topspin lobs, the great retrievals—were blasts from glory days’ past. Others, including a rifled forehand winner early in the fourth-set tiebreaker, may have come as a surprise even to Murray.

“I was pacing myself,” Murray said of his early travails. Unsure how his body, and in particular his hip, would hold up in a long match, he didn’t come out of the gate at top speed.

“Once I got two sets down, I knew I had to turn the after-burners on,” he said. “I hit my forehand better.”

Tennis can use Murray's leadership off the court, and his spirit on it

Tennis can use Murray's leadership off the court, and his spirit on it

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With 59 winners, 77 errors, 14 aces, and 13 double faults, Murray littered up the stat sheet in a way that he almost never does. But he also played in the aggressive fashion that so many of his fans have wanted him to use over the years. He faced 16 break points, but he saved 11 of them, and when the match was tight, Murray only became more proactive.

This was vintage Murray and, 15 years after his tour debut, a new Murray. Whichever one he continues to be, it’s clear right now that the game, and in particular the men’s game, needs him. With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal out of the US Open, he’s one of only three men in the draw who has won a major title, and one of only two with marquee status.

More important, even while Murray has struggled physically in recent years, his reputation off the court has only grown. With his support for equality between the ATP and WTA, he has become one of the game’s only male beacons for progressive-minded tennis fans. They rallied to him again this weekend, when he stated, to no one’s surprise, that he wouldn’t join the new, all-male player union led by Novak Djokovic.

“The fact that women aren’t part of it, I feel like that would send a significantly—well, just a much more powerful message personally if the WTA were on board with it, as well,” Murray said. “That’s not currently the case.”

More than ever, tennis can use Murray’s enlightened leadership, and, as we saw again today, it can use his stubborn spirit and his brilliant shot-making, too. Even watching through Zoom or on TV, when he won today, it felt like the old US Open for the first time. That triumph may have taken four hours and 39 minutes, and it may take a lot longer for his body to recover. But tennis fans should hope that Murray’s win today is just the start for him.