The last time played more than three sets in one match he moved over the Centre Court grass at Wimbledon like Hercules – Harold Steptoe’s horse, not the Roman god. On the hardcourt of Louis Armstrong Stadium on Monday the former US Open champion was more spritely than that hobbling beast and rekindled a smattering of his best moments on day one of the 50th edition of the tournament to eke out a tough 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 win over James Duckworth.
“It was tricky, especially early on,” Murray said. “James served big and played a lot of drop shots. I played some good stuff at times. I changed on the return game, standing a bit further back, and got into the rallies a bit more. I’ve struggled on this court but it’s a little bit more sheltered and the sun went behind the roof in the end. I’m very happy to be back.”
On this showing – admittedly a ludicrously small sample from which to make a considered judgment – Murray can be competitive in the short to medium term at a lower level in best-of-five matches; whether he can regularly reach the levels of stamina and zip that delivered him three major titles and drove his peers to distraction, it is too early to say. The test for him here – in heat forecast to be near to 100 degrees for most of the week – is to recover in time for the second round on Wednesday.
It was his concern about playing back-to-back five-setters that persuaded him to pull out at the last minute a year ago, as well as resorting to surgery on his hip just before the Australian Open, then postpone his comeback on the eve of Wimbledon in the summer.
Murray’s shot-making and all-round game are in excellent order and his desire is clearly as strong as ever. However, he faces a stiffer challenge in round two against Fernando Verdasco who beat his Spanish compatriot Feliciano Lopez, 6-2, 7-5, 6-4. Murray has won 13 of their 14 matches, most recently in Dubai last year.
The hot, still air in the revamped Armstrong stadium was stifling – even for those watching. But Murray’s draining months of rehabilitation after that surgery paid a dividend against an opponent five years younger than him at 26. Duckworth is ranked 448 in the world, having endured his own hospital log of operations from his elbow to his feet, played way above that here.
He wasted two break points in the third game and Murray reciprocated two games later, cementing a stuttering pattern of lost opportunities. Murray had two set points in the 12th game and again failed to cash in; a couple of poor mistakes in the tie-break cost him the set, and his resolve would be properly examined in the rest of the match.
He finally got the break to lift his spirits at the fourth attempt and powered on to level at a set apiece. Moving with his old enthusiasm, he fashioned a set point and forced a tired backhand out of Duckworth to take the third. Broken at the start of the fourth, Murray had to dig deep again to tame an opponent plainly relishing the challenge and the atmosphere.
After breaking back Murray put quality pressure on his opponent to break again for a 4-2 lead and wrapped it up in style. The way he hunted down a drop shot to get to match point was as revealing as anything he did during the entire three hours and 17 minutes.
While Murray was reviving flickering memories of his past after 412 days away from the major championships, the British No1, Kyle Edmund, was succumbing to cramp and a lingering non-specific illness on Court 13 against Paolo Lorenzi. The Italian found enough in his 36-year-old bones to win 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-1 in three hours and 12 minutes and, while Edmund showed admirable pluck to finish, he was swinging from memory for the last hour of it.
Lorenzi, ranked 94 in the world but owner of a crafty game (and the most disarming, pasted-on grin in tennis), was having his first match on hardcourt since he blew a two-set lead against Dami Dzumhur in the first round in Melbourne. But he rediscovered his liking for the surface when Edmund’s rhythm and power deserted him in the second set, and the 16th seed looked furious with himself when he planted a closing forehand beyond the baseline.
They swapped breaks midway through the third as Edmund fought for parity against a player he should have been ushering out of the tournament. Another over-cooked forehand put him a set down. There is no quit in him, though, and it took Lorenzi nearly 10 minutes to serve out the third game before going on to seal the upset with his 21st ace.
Edmund said later he would have to “wait and see” if he was fit enough to play in Great Britain’s Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan, which begins in Glasgow in three weeks. And whether or not Murray resumes service for his country in the city of his birth is similarly up in the air.
Heather Watson, who has had more nightmares here than ever existed on Elm Street, fought hard to avoid another New York defeat but Ekaterina Makarova was too strong at the end of a two-hour battle, winning 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.