Broken nerves. Broken serves. Broken schemes. And, for No. 2 seed Andy Murray, the reigning Wimbledon and Olympic champ, broken dreams.
In their U.S. Open quarterfinal yesterday, Murray and No. 6 seed Kei Nishikori tortured each other and themselves for four hours before Nishikori finally sealed the upset of the tournament, 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5.
Some delightful tennis wizardry was mixed with an agonizing inability by either man to retain any measure of control. Nishikori broke Murray’s serve nine times. Murray broke Nishikori eight times. Nishikori committed 60 unforced errors. Murray 46.
“It was really difficult match,” Nishikori said. “Especially the fifth set was really tough. There were many ups and down, but I tried to stay calm. I think that’s the most important thing I did today.”
From the time an afternoon drizzle closed the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof, seven games into the second set, Murray and Nishikori seemed trapped in a bubble of trouble. Laws of tennis gravity repeatedly were violated, with game leads of 40-0 on serve, or 0-40 when receiving, regularly disappearing in a rush of comebacks or missed opportunities.
Between-point frustrations had Nishikori rolling his eyes, slapping his thigh, flipping his racket. Murray was swatting angrily at the air, rapping his foot with his racket, wagging a finger at himself in condemnation.
“I’m not disappointed, in a way,” Murray said. “Obviously, I would love to have won, but I have not let anyone down. Certainly not myself. I tried my best. I fought as hard as I could with what I had.”
Nishikori’s court coverage and dastardly drop shots repeatedly put Murray in a vise, only to have Murray escape, either with a keen winner or a Nishikori mistake. Adding to the maddening scene was the sudden horn-like blast from a stadium speaker defect just as Murray struck an apparent winner at break point in the third game of the fourth set.
The point was ordered replayed, so instead of a 2-1 lead (with a 2-1 set lead), Murray was down, 2-1. He raised an objection with the chair umpire but voiced no complaint after the match.
Three games later, Murray was about to hit a backhand when a butterfly flew into his vision. He netted the shot and eventually lost his serve in that game, too, and on they went to the wild fifth.
Not that Murray was giving any rest to Nishikori, the 2014 Open runner-up who had beaten Murray only once in eight previous meetings. Down 4-2 in the fifth, Murray reeled off three winning games, stirring the boisterous Ashe crowd into a noisy tumult.
“I love the crowd,” Nishikori said. “It’s a little bit different than other Grand Slams. More loud and more like, you know, big party on the court. It’s very exciting.”
When Murray double faulted (his third in the match) to give Nishikori another break point in the 11th game of the fifth, Nishikori pounced a final time with a drop shot that Murray somehow tracked own, only to helplessly watch Nishikori’s volley winner.
Whereupon Nishikori served out the match, and everyone could take a breath.