It was not really a day to play tennis for three hours and 53 minutes against a tough and determined opponent, but that was what Andy Murray had to endure in the third round of the US Open when he met an old foe, the 30th-seeded Spanish left-hander Feliciano Lopez.
A year ago, the pair had also met in the third round and Murray had swept through, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2. This time, it was entirely different. "It was close," said Lopez with understatement. The score was 7-6(5), 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(4).
At the end of the third set, it looked as if Murray was fading physically. "He did look really tired at the end of the third, but that happens," said Lopez, who played some of his best tennis of the year. "But that can happen to a player for a while in a match, and he played better than me in the fourth-set tiebreak."
Murray acknowledged he had to fight through a period when his energy levels dropped and put it down to the fact that he had not been able to undergo his usual three-week training block in Miami before the US Open Series.
"Because of the Olympics, I couldn’t do that this year, so it was physically challenging in that kind of heat and humidity," he said. "But I felt better toward the end."
Fans at packed on Louis Armstrong Stadium, fanning themselves in temperatures that neared 100 F on court, were offered a contest of fantastic skill and endeavor between two players who refused to give in. Murray saved a break point in the second set when Lopez netted on the 23rd shot of the rally, and there was another of the same length at 5-5 in the fourth set, when Lopez, using his long reach, somehow managed to reach two wide returns and then send Murray racing in to retrieve a drop shot.
The Olympic gold medalist eventually closed it out, 7 points to 5, in that decisive breaker and Lopez does not feel the physical effort expended will affect Murray next time out. "Winning is always good for you," he said. "It gives you extra confidence."
What makes Murray the winner he is? Lopez summed it up succinctly. "He is a very complete player. He reads the game very well. He’s fast. He returns serve very well, and he’s improving all the time. In another time, without (Roger) Federer, (Rafael) Nadal and (Novak) Djokovic, he would be No. 1, no problem."
Murray was asked if he would rather be playing in another era.
"In some ways, it would be good, because I would probably have more titles, but playing against those guys has made me a better player, so there are pros and cons," he answered.
Federer is No. 1, and he came through against Fernando Verdasco, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, on Arthur Ashe, where fans, hopefully, enjoy watching the superstars and don’t mind one-sided matches. There has been a plethora of straight-set wipe-outs on Ashe this week with Serena Williams, who preceded Federer, offering up another one as she crushed Ekaterina Makarova, the Russian who beat her at the Australian Open, 6-4, 6-0.
Verdasco, another Spanish southpaw who was ranked as high as No 7 in the world in 2009, has been on the decline of late, and, hard as he tried, he could never trouble the imperious Swiss.
Federer was asked what kind of pressure felt to win a Slam title now compared with the time when he had never won any. He looked vaguely surprised at the question, as if the word "pressure" was something he had retired from his vocabulary.
"This is way less pressure," he replied in a voice that betrayed a blocked nose from a cold. "I remember I felt an awful lot of pressure because I was very talented and people always said: ‘He’s going to be the next No. 1, next Grand Slam champion, but it seems like there’s something missing.
"You’re like, ‘Yeah, I agree.’ I agree I maybe could make it, but there is something missing but I haven’t figured it out yet. So you do feel that pressure. You panic a little bit. It’s not so simple at times. Today, obviously everything you have achieved, nobody can take it away from you. By virtue of that, you are much more at peace with everything that goes on in your life."
Jack Sock is at the early stage of his career that Federer was talking about, and he can only dream of winning Grand Slam titles. But the young American has had a couple of good wins at this US Open and tried everything he knew to get another. But he was up against the No. 11-seeded Spaniard Nicolas Almagro on the Grandstand and eventually was forced to succumb, 7-6(3), 6-7(4), 7-6(2), 6-1.
But Sock will leave New York with increased confidence in his ability. "I’m definitely going in the right direction now," he said.
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The story of the new brothers-in-arms gathered pace as Ryan and Christian Harrison, playing their first Grand Slam together, knocked off another established doubles team when they beat Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, 6-4, 6-4. In the first round, the siblings from Shreveport, La., had ousted the No 4 seeds from Poland, Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski – two impressive wins for a 20-year-old and his 18-year-old rookie brother.
"We got an early break in the first set, and that took the pressure off," Ryan said. "It enabled us to swing freely after that, and at 4-4 in the second set, Christian hit a great return on the first point and again on the third and then Erlich missed a high forehand volley. Basically, we played a solid match, making them play a lot of balls."
Next up, the Harrisons will play the 14th seeds, Ross Hutchins and Colin Fleming, after the British pair overcame Americans Brian Baker and Rajeev Ram, 7-5, 6-3.
No question they will be up for it. The entire Harrison clan is in New York – mother, father, sister, grandparents plus a few friends who will remember the two boys battling away against each other in practice sessions at the Shreveport Country Club, where their father, Pat, was manager before moving on to the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch at New Braunfels, Texas.
"We were always competitive at everything – especially with Dad at badminton on PlayStation," Christian said.
The pair are obviously close and say the secret of their burgeoning success is to be as competitive as possible while supporting each other to the hilt. At this rate, Jim Courier will have a ready-made Davis Cup doubles pair to step into the breach whenever the Bryan twins decide to retire.