Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Everything people are saying about how this match should never have gone so late, how it was unfair on everyone from the players to the unpaid ballkids who raced back and forth for six hours, is true. I doubt I can add to the issues that have already been pointed out and the potential solutions that have been put forth, but I can tell you what I saw inside Margaret Court Arena — there was the usher who had been on his feet since 6:00 p.m. and told me he had never stayed later than 2:30 a.m. (we all filed out of the stadium at around 4:15). A huge clump of fans left after the third set. Some of the fans who stayed asked if concessions were still open and looked blankly at the ushers when they were told places were closed. People ran out to the lone booth that remained open and came back with trays of hot chocolate and coffee and tea. Phones died, meaning people couldn’t call Ubers. Claire Stanley, one of the three biggest Murray fans on this Earth, had to leave because her phone ran out of juice and she needed to catch the last tram, which she barely made.
That was in the middle of the third set. The match wouldn’t end for another three hours.
When I was watching on one of the TV screens inside the arena — I think it was early in the fourth set — I heard a fan talking to an usher. The fan was being kicked out for saying something, I’m not sure what, to Thanasi Kokkinakis during the instant-classic second-round match with Andy Murray. The conversation was shockingly reasonable for the hour and the nature of the situation. The fan said that Kokkinakis had called him a cocksucker and that a different usher had come to talk to him for what he’d said beforehand, and thereafter the fan had done nothing but cheer appropriately for Murray. “It’s hilarious to me that he, one of the athletes, can call someone a cocksucker and nothing happens, and I do nothing but cheer for Andy Murray since your coworker came to talk to me and I get removed,” he said. The usher seemed not to blame the fan personally, and the fan repeatedly told the usher he understood their plight.
“I’m just the messenger,” the usher said helplessly after a while. It had the effect of an ace on match point.
“I get it,” the fan replied, shaking the usher’s hand and politely asking for his name (not as in so I can talk to your manager, as in I’m sorry, I missed it the first time). He walked away, then spun around after a few steps. “Where is the exit again?”
Anyway, Murray and Kokkinakis played a pretty good tennis match this morning.
I have so many details flitting through my head that I really don’t know where to start. I remember finishing a piece about Novak Djokovic and then going over to watch the screen in Margaret Court Arena; soon thereafter, Andy Murray returned approximately 477593 overheads from Thanasi Kokkinakis and won the point in such an incredible way he immediately seemed relevant in the match again despite being down two sets and 1-2.
Some will say that the overhead retrievals were the turning point of the match, but Kokkinakis answered the bell after Murray’s defensive heroics, toughing out a hold at 2-all, breaking Murray at 3-2, then saving break point to hold again at 4-2. I don’t care who you are or who you’re playing, if you’re on the pro tour, I don’t expect you to win from two sets and 2-5 down. It looked, for all intents and purposes, that Kokkinakis had taken Murray’s best punch on the chin and was no worse off for it. He was having a career day. He kept blasting aces down the T that bit right into the centerline and left Murray ranting at his box. His forehand was a cannon shot, his backhand a helping hand rather than a liability.
But Murray never quit. He kept matters close enough to force Kokkinakis’s nerves into the equation. I was already wondering by the end of the third set if the Australian had ever been in such an intense match. The rallies required three or four finishing shots to kill properly; there were, seemingly, stretch lobs that forced a smash error on every other point. Kokkinakis was regularly pounding his heart as if to show how much will the match was requiring, even with him so close to a straight-set win. I feel for him, because I don’t think he ever outright choked (okay, the volley to lose the third set was a considerable choke). It was more that he made some errors on the pretty big points and Murray won the biggest on his own terms. You had Kokkinakis’s unforced error at 5-3, 30-all in the third set when he served for the match, then Murray’s error-forcing forehand on break point. Kokkinakis saved three break points at 5-all in the fifth, two with gigantic serves, only for Murray to blast an inside-out forehand winner on his fourth chance. You can only do so much.
This wasn’t one of the matches where Murray found himself sucked into a grind fest with an underpowered opponent by being unwilling to pull the trigger himself, which has happened countless times in the past few years. Murray actually did what I’ve been imploring him to do since his comeback and what others have been begging for his whole career: He hit his backhand down the line. He attacked Kokkinakis’s slices with curling forehand winners. Was this 2012 Murray? No. But the resemblance was stronger than it has been in a very long time. And Kokkinakis deserves the credit for pushing him to those heights; nothing less than what Murray produced would have been enough to win.
There were enough bits of magic sprinkled onto the five hours and 45 minutes that this match won’t just be remembered for Murray’s comeback. At 3-2 in the fourth set, Murray, as he is wont to do sometimes, stirred up the crowd with gestures and applause. We started yelling and didn’t stop. Kokkinakis took his time walking over to his side of the court, and I could see him smile from my seat. It was already past two in the morning at this point, we were just a bunch of people screaming for two people hitting a ball back and forth on a little blue rectangle early in a tournament. But the two people made it feel very special.
Murray’s career is inextricably intertwined with the Big Three’s, but he’s the easiest to differentiate. When you’ve won three majors out of the 66 the Big Four have won in total, you’re amazing, but you’re the fourth wheel. Murray’s comeback from injury and attempt to retool his game has not led to more major titles but to a string of gritty mini-epics, reminders that while Murray is no longer immortally tireless, he can still be tireless for a night.
Murray has played and won enough matches in his career that it’s probably exaggeratory to say that any individual one of them was unlike all the others. This was his 11th comeback from two sets to love down, an Open Era record. But to me it did feel different than the other insane matches he’s played during his career, and I think it did to Murray too. It was the second-longest match in Australian Open history! In his first-round press conference after beating Matteo Berrettini, Murray was pretty dour, despite the epic nature of the win he’d just scored. I’d have been joking around if it were me, fishing for as many compliments as I could, but Murray just nonchalantly expressed his pleasure. I expected the same out of him after this. He’s just a grumpy guy, I figured. It’d be nice if he wasn’t, but it’s okay that he is — this is just Andy. The idea of truly taking someone as they are, flaws and all, gets tossed around quite a bit, but I think a lot of the time, if you think about it hard enough, we would use the power to change people if we had it. Murray’s fans must surely wish his second serve were better. But when thinking about Andy, the idea resonated with me more than it had in a while. If he weren’t grumpy, he wouldn’t be Andy, and Andy strikes a chord with people as he is.
Here’s why I think this match felt different to the Scot: The first question he was asked after the match was how he managed to pull off the comeback. I expected a slow, thought-out answer, and Murray did indeed eventually give a typically intelligent response. But the first thing to escape his lips was a high-pitched giggle.