ANTWERP, October 19, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
While it’s still too early to tell if Andy Murray is all the way back to his best, it’s been a very encouraging week for him at the European Open in Antwerp, Belgium, where winning is becoming a matter of routine – and he’s playing pain free, too.
On Thursday evening inside Lotto Arena, the 32-year-old Murray faced only four break points against No. 45 Pablo Cuevas from Uruguay and saved them all, including two of them with service aces, en route to a 6-4, 6-3 win. He hit 12 aces in all to reach his second ATP quarterfinal in three weeks. Suddenly, there were flashbacks to Murray’s glory days when he was a Top Four fixture in men’s tennis instead of being ranked 243rd after coming back from hip surgery that followed the Australian Open in January, which has sidelined him for most of this year.
From Murray’s point of view, he hit balls very cleanly from the outset of his one hour and 24 minute match against Cuevas, didn’t experience too many lulls and “I didn’t let him have too many chances,” he said.
It seems Murray’s concentration and physical movement is improving, and he’s keeping his emotions in check unlike last week at the Rolex Shanghai Masters, when he had a bit of a verbal row with Fabio Fognini near the end of his second-round loss to the oft-vocal Italian.
“I felt a bit better today,” Murray said on court after his Thursday victory. “I thought I served quite well for most of the match and when I was able to get into the baseline rallies, I felt I was hitting ball quite clear, which is good. He served very well, which made it difficult for me to get the breaks, but I thought for me it was a good match.”
Murray’s win over Cuevas leveled his win-loss record to 7-7 this season and advanced him to Friday’s quarterfinals against 92nd-ranked Marius Copil of Romania, who is forever linked to the Scotsman. That’s because the two faced each other on a muggy summer evening last year at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. Rain delayed the start of their match to midnight and after Murray completed a 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory, it was 3:01 a.m. While few fans remained in the main stadium to watch that evening and early morning, those who did saw Murray react to the win by sitting in his chair sobbing – in agony – into his towel.
Television cameras caught the entire impactful moment and it was replayed over and over in the coming days throughout the tennis world. What everyone thought was an emotional reaction after Murray had reached his first quarterfinal in over a year turned out to be tears of extreme and intense pain. Murray realized his hip was not improving and he was forced to pull out of the tournament.
“When you consider the state Murray was in the last time he faced his quarterfinal opponent, Marius Copil, sobbing in his chair in Washington last year,” tweeted The Tennis Podcast co-host David Law, “it really hits home.”
As Murray recalled for reporters in Antwerp on Thursday, “That was a tough day. I was struggling a lot then with my hip, and he was using a lot of drop shots. It was a tough match for me so I remember that one well.”
While it’s not always been easy for Murray during his comeback, this time against Copil he won, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-4, to advance to Saturday’s semifinal round against 70th-ranked Ugo Humbert of France, who upset fifth seed Guido Pella of Argentina, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. It will be Murray’s first time meeting the 21-year-old Humbert, and it’s not only his first singles semifinal since returning to the ATP Tour in Cincinnati two months ago, it’s his first singles semifinal since the 2017 French Open.
Murray led Copil 6-3, 5-2 after one hour and 15 minutes. However, thanks to a second-set slip up, when he was broken serving for the match at 5-3, it took him an additional hour and 20 minutes to close out the match for his third win this week in Antwerp. Murray, who withstood 20 service aces from the Romanian, won 70 percent (62 of 88) of his own service points and outpointed Copil 104-92.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) October 18, 2019
“I haven’t played loads of matches the past few years. So, when you get to the end of the match, it’s always difficult to serve it out,” said Murray on court after his win. “I played a bad game at 5-3 in the second set and after that I think (Copil) gained a lot of confidence.
“He served extremely well. He was being a lot more aggressive at the end of the second set and in the third, but thankfully I managed to get the break right at the end. It was a tough one to get through.”
After surrendering the second set in a tiebreak, Murray lost just five service points during the final set and did not face a break point. At 4-4, he surprised Copil and caught him off balance with a surprising drop shot that the 6-foot-4 (1.93 m) Romanian netted to secure a decisive break. Then, Murray consolidated the break and won the match with his ninth ace on match point to remain alive into the weekend.
Earlier this week, Murray was asked to describe his physical progress. He said some days are better than others, but admitted “It’s getting there. It sometimes takes me a little bit longer to get warmed up in the matches and sort of feel confident with my movement.”
As Murray heads into Saturday’s semifinals with the tournament’s top seeds, Gaël Monfils and David Goffin, already eliminated, he finds himself with one eye on the court, needing just two more wins to garner his 46th ATP title. The other eye is on his smartphone. That’s because Murray’s wife, Kim, is back home expecting to give birth to the couple’s third child any day now – and Andy has stated he will drop everything to be at the birth. However, if everything goes accordingly and Murray is successful in lifting the European Open trophy on Sunday, it would be his first championship title since he won Dubai in 2017.
After playing on consecutive days, Murray said on court following his win against Copil that he felt okay. “It’s more how you feel the following day. The good thing about the indoor matches is that the points are fairly short, so it doesn’t take as much out of you as on some of the slower courts outside,” he said. “But I feel okay, hopefully I pull up well tomorrow.”
Sinner shining in Antwerp
At age 18, Jannik Sinner became the youngest ATP Tour semifinalist since then 17-year-old Borna Coric accomplished the feat in Basel five years ago, after scoring a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 quarterfinal win over Frances Tiafoe of the United States.
The Italian #NextGenATP rising star born in San Candido, who entered the week with a wild card and ranked at a career-high No. 119, earned his first ATP Tour semifinal berth after he broke Tiafoe for a 4-2 lead in the third set thanks to hitting a pinpoint forehand passing shot that forced a backhand volley error by his fellow #NextGenATP star.
Rising star ⁰⁰⭐️🇮🇹
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) October 18, 2019
“I played against a tough player, of course,” Sinner said during his post-match interview. “I tried to play my tennis. In the first set, it worked. In the second set, he was a little bit more aggressive, so I felt a little bit under pressure.
“I tried to play quite long, quite deep the ball. It worked very good today.”
During the match, Sinner fired 10 aces and saved four of the five break points he faced as he backed up his second-round win over top seed Gaël Monfils, which was his first Top 50 victory. Sinner already became the youngest quarterfinalist in tournament history as well as the youngest player to reach the quarterfinal round of an ATP Tour event since then 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime did it last year in Chengdu, China.
In the past year, Sinner’s world ranking has gone from 778th to 119th, thanks to being successful on the Challenger Tour circuit, where earlier this year he won tournaments in Bergamo, Italy, and Lexington, Kentucky. Depending on how other results shake out in Antwerp as well as in Moscow and Stockholm at other ATP Tour events over the weekend, it’s possible that Sinner could potentially break into the Top 100 when the new rankings come out on Monday.
In the meantime, if Sinner wins his semifinal match against Stan Wawrinka, whom he lost to in four sets in his Grand Slam debut at the US Open, he will become the youngest ATP finalist since Kei Nishikori accomplished the feat at age 18 back at the 2008 Delray Beach Open. “So maybe I can win this time, and I’m looking forward to the next one,” he said.
The fourth-seeded Wawrinka, who like Sinner received a wild card into the main draw, advanced to the last eight with a 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-2 win over 47th-ranked Gilles Simon in two hours and 14 minutes Friday afternoon. The 18th-ranked Swiss star hit five aces and won 72 percent (43 of 60) of his first-serve points. His serve was broken just once and he broke Simon five times while also outpointing the Frenchman 99-85.
“I still have to play two more matches,” Wawrinka said during his post-match press conference. “It wasn’t easy today, but I’m very satisfied with my level of tennis and my mental resilience.”