Sunday, June 16, 2024

Murray suffers first-round exit at French Open

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PARIS — Andy Murray suffered a first-round exit at the French Open as he fell to an inspired Stan Wawrinka in straight sets on Sunday night.

The two have three Grand Slams apiece, but in this battle of the veterans with a combined age of 76, it was Wawrinka who came out on top, winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in 2 hours, 19 minutes.

“Disappointed, it was always going to be tough, a tough match,” Murray said. “Stan has played brilliant tennis on that court and I was expecting him to play very well tonight and he gave me few opportunities. I wish I could’ve done a bit better — disappointed, but I didn’t have extremely high expectations given the way the preparation went coming into it.

“Physically, tennis is not easy for me these days. It’s hard, and clay has been a surface since the beginning of my career, I’ve had back issues on the clay, and it’s something I’m used to.”

It was a tennis match more resembling a heavyweight fight as the two exchanged powerful groundstrokes with the odd drop shot breaking things up as the duo defied age to keep a packed crowd enthralled. But it was Wawrinka, 39, who prevailed, booking his spot in the second round.

Wawrinka was largely in charge of the proceedings, his backhand on point as he moved Murray around Court Philippe-Chatrier. He received the majority of backing from the French crowd, a favourite in these parts after he won the tournament in 2015.

Wawrinka said afterward of Murray: “It was emotional for sure; we’re getting closer to the end. We played so many times in the last 20 years. He’s an amazing guy. Amazing player and such a big fighter. We have a lot of respect for each other.

“I think I played my best match of the year. I was playing aggressive, and I’m super happy with the performance.”

For Murray, 37, this was always a free hit. This was just his second visit to Roland Garros in singles in the past seven years — his best return here in Paris here was reaching the 2016 final, where he lost to Novak Djokovic. But eight years on, it was Wawrinka who stopped him in his tracks in the opening round.

This is widely expected to be Murray’s final year on tour, having said back in February he is not intending to “play much past this summer,” a timeframe that includes another crack at the Olympics in Paris in August. But just like Rafael Nadal, Murray has not confirmed this will definitely be his final French Open.

There were doubts whether Murray was going to be fit in time for Roland Garros after he ruptured ankle ligaments at the Miami Open in March. At the time, conservative estimates put his recovery time at anything between 10 and 12 weeks, placing in doubt the chances of him making the French Open and Wimbledon.

But the injury healed quicker than expected and he ended up missing six weeks of competition. During that spell, he used that time to weigh up a change of racket. He tested 10 different options that he purchased in Florida and opted to move away from the Head rackets he has used through his career and switched to a Yonex Ezone 100 racket, one offering more power.

Murray competed at a challenger event in Bordeaux in mid-May and lost in the second round to Gregoire Barrere. He also competed at the Geneva Open but lost in the first round to Yannick Hanfmann. So it was with a 1-2 record on clay he headed into the French Open, where he was drawn with old foe Wawrinka.

The two know each other well, and due to Murray’s sporadic attendance at the French Open in recent years as he managed injury and fitness, his last two matches at Roland Garros were both against Wawrinka. The two met in the 2017 semifinal — a match Wawrinka won 6-7 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-1 — and then again in the first round in 2020, where Wawrinka won in straight sets.

Murray held an overall 13-9 record against Wawrinka, but it was the veteran Swiss who started better, breaking Murray’s serve in the opening game, converting a third break point.

Murray failed to take advantage of a break point in the fourth, battling it out with powerful groundstrokes from the baseline. Wawrinka saved a break point in the fourth game and continued to move Murray around mixing things up. In the sixth game, he hit the one-two punch of a drop-shot winner then a stunning backhand down the line in the next point.

Murray then managed to save three break points in the seventh, while also referring a distraction in the crowd to the umpire, to hold serve. The two continued slogging it out, Murray saving two set points in the 10th, only for Wawrinka to close that set out 6-4 in 53 minutes.

The second set was much the same. As the temperature dipped — those in the courtside seats wrapping themselves in blankets — Wawrinka continued dictating the tempo of the match, breaking Murray to go 2-1 up in the second set. Murray battled, looking to break serve while holding his own — stringing together a brilliant variety of shots to win the seventh — but he was unable to get a foothold back in the set, with Wawrinka taking the second 6-4.

The start of the third was delayed as Wawrinka took a medical timeout. All the while, Murray paced the baseline, trying to keep warm. But Wawrinka showed no ill effects, breaking Murray in the first game of the third with a whipped backhand down the line. Wawrinka held serve and then punished Murray’s serve again in the third, winning the second of three break points to take a 3-0 lead. Murray clawed a couple of games back, but he couldn’t get a handle on Wawrinka’s serve, as the Swiss took the third set 6-2 and the match with brutal efficiency.

For Murray, this isn’t the end of his time at Roland Garros this fortnight, as he’ll play in the men’s doubles alongside fellow Brit Dan Evans.

Wawrinka’s next step in the men’s singles will see him play the winner of Monday’s match between Cameron Norrie and Pavel Kotov.

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