Perseverance Pays Off For Murray In Classic, Memorable Victory

Andy Murray (photo: European Open)

ANTWERP/WASHINGTON, October 20, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Tuesday evening’s featured first-round match at the ATP Tour 250 European Open in Antwerp, Belgium, between Great Britain’s Andy Murray and Frances Tiafoe of the United States, won by the 34-year-old three-time Grand Slam champion with the metal hip, was decided by the slimmest of margins – a third-set tie break.

The first two sets were decided by lengthy, back-to-back tie breaks. So, why not the third, too. Right? By the end, both Murray and Tiafoe, who at age 23 is nine years the Briton’s junior, gave the fans what they came to see – a classic, memorable tennis match.

After splitting the first two tie-break sets – Murray won the first 7-2 and Tiafoe the second 9-7 – by 5-all in the third set, the two combatants had evenly split the first 242 points they played – 121 points were won by each competitor. By the end, when match point finally decided the outcome in Murray’s favor – the third-set tie break score was 10-8 – he was ahead on points 134-133. This is a match both players will remember for a long time. After all, it took three hours and 45 minutes to decide – and Murray’s become the poster child this season for playing long, grueling but heartfelt matches, win or lose.

The dramatic Murray-Tiafoe tussle was the longest best-of-3 set match this season on the ATP Tour and it broke the mark of 3:38 set by Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas during the Barcelona final on clay last spring.

In the end, Murray finally won 7-6 (2), 6-7 (7), 7-6 (8) to advance to the second round against No. 2 seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, who will be well rested after enjoying a first-round bye. Fortunately, Murray has Wednesday to recover – to sleep as much as he can and eat well and refuel – before returning to Lotto Arena to face the World No. 14 on Thursday.

“I think that’s the first time in my career I’ve played a 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 [match],” said the tired-but-happy Murray during his on-court TV interview. He paused during the middle of it so he could applaud as Tiafoe walked off the Center Court inside Lotto Arena to loud and appreciative applause. “I don’t think I’ve every played a match like that. I think it’s the longest three-set match I’ve played by quite a distance. I’m tired right now, obviously it was an unbelievable battle.”

Indeed, and the intensity and competitiveness shown throughout by both the 172nd-ranked Murray and No. 48 Tiafoe was second to none. In their third career head-to-head meeting and first on an indoor hard-court surface, both players brought the Belgian crowd to their feet with plenty of excellent shotmaking, hustle and desire. A determined Murray served 21 aces to eight for Tiafoe and saved seven of 10 break points. He fought off two match points by Tiafoe and won on his second match-point after hitting a backhanded drop shot that the Maryland native wasn’t able to successfully return.

Neither gave the other much of a margin to build upon and it was very much a back-and-forth contest. The most consecutive games Murray was able to muster was two, three for Tiafoe. Each held service 15 times and each won three return games. It doesn’t get much closer – or more even – than that.

Somehow, Tiafoe managed to keep his wits about him after squandering five set points during the one-hour and 20-minute second set, which he finally won on his sixth set-point opportunity with a third-shot forehand winner. In the end, though, Murray had enough resolve to keep from losing and to pull out the third-set tie break that lasted 18 points and garnered the victory.

”Nowadays, obviously my body is old now. I’ve played a lot of matches on the Tour. I don’t mind playing long matches, but that was taking it to another level,” Murray said.

After it was all over, both Murray and Tiafoe sat down at their respective court side benches for a long time, soaking up the applause and to reflect.

When Murray was asked during his on-court TV interview what he would remember, he paused for a moment, then replied: “Brilliant match, amazing atmosphere, thanks to everyone who came and supported. It’s just so nice to be back and playing in front of crowds again.”

Later, during his post-match news conference that didn’t commence until 11:45 p.m. local time, about 35 minutes later than originally scheduled, Murray was asked by a local reporter if there’s something magic in the air for him in Antwerp – he’s undefeated (6-0) with one title in his two European Open competitions – Murray chuckled at the question and politely responded: “Obviously, today was a special match. It’s a really nice atmosphere there and a lot of people came to watch, although, I would rather avoid playing matches of that length that are that physically demanding. [Still,], it’s great I am still able to do that.”

Then, Tennis TourTalk asked Murray why he thought he won and what he’ll remember most about it. He took his time to collect his thoughts and expressed them with great clarity: “Why did I win tonight? … Hmm. I don’t know exactly. I had opportunities, certainly, in the second set to potentially finish the match in two sets. In the third set, he got hot, I came back and I felt like I was creating more opportunities at the end of the set – even though I couldn’t quite get them. By the end of the match, anything could have happened. Both of us served extremely well right at the end in that tie break. Thankfully, I came up with a great shot on the match point and that was the difference. There’s so much that goes into the match. The margins were so fine. … When [Frances] missed his first serve on that match point I was able to capitalize on it. 

“In terms of what I’ll remember, I spent probably like 30 minutes in the locker room just chatting with Frances. Maybe, once or twice, I’ve had that type of conversation but usually the time is so short afterward in the locker room. Once, with [Jurgen] Melzer at the [2008] US Open after I beat him in five sets, we chatted a bit about the match, and once after playing Jarko Nieminen [at Wimbledon, 2010] because we were waiting to speak with the Queen after we played. We were standing next to each other and we had a chat about our match.

“I’ll [certainly] remember my chat with Frances after the match and the embrace at the end, I guess. So much went into [the match] – there were so many points – and at the end was special. I’ve never played a match like that on the Tour.”