Moths, gongs and rain delays: Andy Murray’s US Open campaign was ended by a string of distractions that no one could have prepared for as Kei Nishikori pushed past him and into the semi-finals.
The match had started so well for the Scot that it did not seem possible that he could be dragged into a five-set marathon and end up the 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 loser.
After a few moments to get used to the conditions – and fend off three break points in the opening game – Murray was off and running. Just as he had been against Grigor Dimitrov, he was aggressive, focused and tactically on his toes. He knew exactly what to expect from Nishikori having beaten him seven times out of eight (the most recent win coming in the Rio Olympics) and he had his game plan neatly worked out.
In that opening set, Murray dropped just six points on his serve and committed only three unforced errors. He was utterly dominant to the point that Nishikori was looking pleadingly at his support team in the players’ box, searching for some help and advice. But no man reaches No.6 in the world without having not only talent but also belief and confidence.
Come the second set, the rain that had been forecast arrived and disrupted proceedings. The first few drops passed in moments but the huge black cloud overhead stayed put and soon both men were back in the locker room as the roof was closed and play was halted for 20 minutes. That gave Nishikori a chance to pick the brains of Michael Chang, his coach, and when he returned to work, he was more aggressive while Murray’s level dropped slightly.
Murray broke after the first interruption but then, seemingly under no pressure whatsoever, he surrendered his own serve. From being in total charge, the Scot was now looking edgy and after the roof was closed, he dropped his serve – and with it the set – yet again. He was dragged into a battle he had not anticipated.
The third set did not get any better for the Scot. An early break of serve gave him hope; dropping his own serve in the next game had him downcast again. Another break for 4-3 had every one in Murray’s box cheering (Lendl excepted, of course); dropping serve yet again brought Murray back to square one. He had been running and chasing for two hours by this stage and still he could not put Nishikori away.
When Murray is struggling, his default setting is to work harder and run faster. When he is not on top of his game, he grits his teeth and chases down every lost cause. In the slightly heavier conditions under the roof, his initial advantage had been taken away so he relied on lung power to wear the Japanese down. He chased and fought and finally gained his third break of serve in the third set and this time, he was not to be denied. Serving out to love, he was back in the lead.
But nothing is ever straight forward with Murray. Just when he thought he could breathe and regroup in the fourth set, he was happily holding another break point when a loud noise reverberated around the court as if someone had struck a gong. The umpire called a let and asked them to replay the point and the Scot was furious. Complaining that the same thing had happened earlier in the match and he had been told to keep playing, he could shake the perceived injustice from his mind and he dropped serve. Again. Just to rub salt into Murray’s wounds, a moth appeared from nowhere and settled on the net, refusing to move.
Unable to clear his mind, the fourth set ran away from him and he was broken in the opening game of the fifth. Eight games whistled by him before he could halt the slide but he was still playing catch-up in the final set. But when he did, at last, get a game on the board, he refocused.
Alas, by then, time was against him and even if he fought for all he was worth – there were five breaks of serve in the final set – he could not find a way to stop Nishikori.
Meanwhile, Jamie Murray, pictured, and Bruno Soares are two wins away from a second grand slam title after the doubles pair advanced to the semi-finals of the US Open.
Murray and Soares edged out Australia’s Chris Guccione and Brazilian Andre Sa 7-6 (11/9) 2-6 6-3 at Flushing Meadows.
The fourth seeds will now face either French duo Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert or Sweden’s Robert Lindstedt and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan in the last four.
After clinching their first major title at the Australian Open in January, Murray and Soares are now chasing a repeat on the hard courts in New York. They reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon together this summer and have secured spots at the ATP World Tour Finals after winning here in the third round.
The first set was the tightest on Court 17, drifting into a tie-break as neither pair managed a break of serve.
Murray and Soares held their nerve, however, and grabbed the set at 10-9 when Guccione dumped a backhand volley into the net.
Guccione and Sa fought back in the second, breaking twice to draw level, but Guccione failed to hold in the decider as Murray and Soares closed out a hard-fought victory.