MELBOURNE, Australia — It was slightly after 7 p.m. in Melbourne on Friday night when Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray limped, hobbled and creaked onto their respective courts for his or her third-round showdowns.
In Djokovic’s way stood Grigor Dimitrov, the Bulgarian once nicknamed “Baby Fed” for his flowing, graceful style, and in Murray’s path was Roberto Bautista Agut, a part of the talented generation of Spaniards led by Rafael Nadal. There was also a lot wear and tear accumulating for the 2 limping lions of the game — one who’s arguably the best player ever, and Murray, the previous world No. 1 and fourth member of the vaunted Big 4.
Djokovic, a nine-time winner of the Australian Open, has been battling a sore left hamstring that has limited his movement and people trademark sliding stretch shots. On Rod Laver Arena, his assassin’s glare has been replaced with the apprehensive look of a person who keeps hearing the identical grave diagnosis regardless of what number of physicians he asks for an opinion.
Murray, whose rocking pigeon-toed walk has never been pretty, played for nearly 11 hours over 10 sets in his first two matches, the second of which finished after 4 a.m. on Friday. He fell asleep for 3 hours because the sun was rising, having pulled off a finals week-style all-nighter. Then he returned to Melbourne Park to have seven or eight blisters on his foot drained.
Murray also has a metal hip following a resurfacing surgery in 2019 that some doctors told him would allow him to do little greater than rally together with his children.
If you might have ever watched a friend who has run a marathon attempt to descend a flight of stairs the following morning, you might have idea of what Murray looked like in the course of the first set on Friday night, when he lost 6-1 inside half an hour. He looked just like the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz,” his joints desperately in need of oil.
Serving within the third game of the second set, he double-faulted to provide Bautista Agut the crucial break and let loose a primal grunt that gave the impression of some combination of frustration and hopelessness. The craftiness and power, the unequalled ability to scramble and extend points which can be speculated to be long over, needed to be somewhere inside that 6-foot-3-inch frame, but by some means those parts of him wouldn’t come out.
“My legs were actually OK,” Murray said after Bautista Agut had sent him packing in 4 sets. “I used to be battling my lower back. That was affecting my serve.”
To sit down close and watch Murray fully engaged within the sort of battle he relishes normally means bearing witness to a running internal dialogue. He assumes the role of the lead character within the drama, an unflinching critic, cursing himself for his mistakes, pumping his fist and shaking his racket in determination when he smacks a winner. And, in fact, there’s the hourslong one-way conversation together with his coach and his mother sitting courtside.
There was almost none of that for the primary hour on Friday night. What was the purpose of all that angst and self-punishment if this was all for naught? On tonight, he was going to wish something else.
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He found it in two corners of Margaret Court Arena, distant from where his coaches sat, where two groups of Murray fans huddled around a Scottish flag, screaming to induce the Murray of old, and even the Murray of early Friday morning, out of him. They were those on the opposite side of his fist pumps and self-talk.
Slowly, Murray got here alive, climbing out of the opening after which lacing a running backhand to save lots of his serve at 5-5 within the second set after he had already lost the primary and was watching doom. Then got here the good escape tiebreaker.
The opening at 2-5 brought out the swinging forehand volley winner and an untouchable crosscourt backhand to get him inside some extent. Getting out of the opening at 4-6 required surviving one in every of those long, nervy rallies and a ripping forehand drop-shot combination to attract even.
At 7-7, a jumping backhand return of serve gave him the sting. When Bautista Agut smacked a ball into the web on the following point, Murray stood together with his hands on his hips and stared on the Scottish faithful with the flag within the corner.
That is what it looks prefer to go kicking and screaming into the twilight.
Meanwhile, across the entry plaza that the 2 feature courts share, about 100 yards away on Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic managed his ailments like a man whose old automobile has a clutch and choke that should be handled just so to get from here to there.
After prevailing 9-7 in a first-set tiebreaker, an ill-advised split to achieve a Dimitrov overhead early within the second set had Djokovic grimacing and leaning over.
A game later he was back to business, that regular drumbeat of backhands and forehands targeted at Dimitrov’s shoelaces time and again until Dimitrov just couldn’t move quickly enough to get them back anymore, much less get Djokovic on the run, which was his only hope.
Djokovic has said his leg generally feels advantageous firstly of the matches, but then a nasty move tweaks it and things go downhill from there.
“Pills kick in, some hot cream and stuff, that works for slightly bit, then it doesn’t, then works again,” he said. “It’s really a roller coaster, truthfully.”
It’s all eerily paying homage to a moment two years ago, when Djokovic tore an abdominal muscle during his third-round match, then discovered the precise combination of rest, painkillers and match management to cruise to his record ninth singles title in Melbourne.
Djokovic’s night was over just as Murray was trying one last escape, this time after dropping the third set. He surged to an early fourth-set lead but couldn’t hold it.
In almost every tennis match, a player’s feet are the final word tell, and because the fourth set wore on, Murray’s feet barely lifted off the bottom on his serve. When he ran, he looked like he was stepping on hot coals. The flow was gone and it wasn’t coming back, and shortly his shots were flying long and wide or, like his last one, into the web.
He said he was pleased with his efforts this past week. “That is de facto, in whatever you’re doing, all you may do,” he said. “You possibly can’t at all times control the end result. You possibly can’t control how well you’re going to play or the result. You possibly can control the hassle that you just put into it, and I gave all the pieces that I had the last three matches.”
A number of minutes later, he limped down three stairs. It was time to rest.